You can read this series from the beginning here.
I got the three a.m. phone call a little early, at about two forty-five in the morning. "Get dressed," the person on the other end of the phone said. "Hurry up."
"Who is this?" I asked.
"There isn’t time," the voice said. "Move. A town car is waiting for you downstairs." And there was a click, and the phone went dead.
A normal person would have hung up the phone and gone back to sleep. I am not a normal person. I am a warrior for social justice, and social justice is more important than sleep. I got out of bed, put on a black hoodie and my dark-purple Amherst cap and my Timberland boots just in case the streets were icy. I went downstairs and found the town car waiting for me. Emma was in the back seat already, dressed in a pink Mount Holyoke hoodie.
"Was this your idea?" she asked.
"No," I said.
"If you’re going to ask me out on a date, ask me out on a date, Justin. This cloak-and-dagger stuff is just beyond stupid."
"I have no idea what this is about," I said. "Do you?"
"All I have to go on is one mysterious middle-of-the-night phone call."
"Same here." I leaned forward, towards the driver. "Do you know what’s going on?" I asked.
"I was just told to drop the two of you off at this address and then take you home when you’re done," he said. "We’ll be there in about five minutes. Either of you want to grab some coffee or something on the way?"
"Dunkin’ Donuts," Emma said, "if it’s convenient."
We pulled in through the drive-through. I ordered an espresso. I Googled it later and found that Dunkin’ Donuts uses fair-trade coffee beans, although they’re not always shade-grown or organic, but you can’t have everything. Emma got a large cup and two crullers, and managed to gulp all of that down before we arrived at our destination, which was a large mansion in Georgetown. A security guard hustled us out of the town car and headed us towards a small detached garage in the back. "It’s in there," he said. "Get moving."
We walked into the garage. The inside walls were covered with soundproofing tiles. In the center of the room, there was a very large and very dangerous-looking piece of machinery. Next to it were four large dairy crates filled with various sorts of electronic equipment, along with several large copy-paper boxes containing a variety of paper files.
"This is weird," I said.
"I wish I hadn’t gone to see Fifty Shades of Grey last weekend," Emma said. "You don’t think this is somebody’s idea of a dungeon, do you?"
"I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it," I said. "Thank you for that."
"You’re welcome."
The security guard left the garage, and a blonde woman dressed in black came inside. "Oh, good, you made it, finally," she said. "Did anyone explain why you were asked to come here?"
"No." we both said.
"Good. Okay, that big machine is an industrial shredder, okay?"
"It says ‘Property of the Emirate of Qatar’ on it," I pointed out.
"It was donated by the Emirate to, um, an American nonprofit foundation for earthquake relief in Haiti," the blonde woman said. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her. "It’s being shipped out to Port-au-Prince in the morning. But you can use it tonight."
"They had an earthquake in Haiti?" I asked.
"Five years ago," Emma said.
"It’s taking five years for earthquake relief to get there?" I asked.
"I was told that you two were Ready," the blonde woman said. "And that means that you’re Ready to stop asking questions. Read the manual, figure out how to make this machine work, and start shredding. Okay?"
"Got it," Emma said.
"I am not actually mechanically inclined in any way," I said.
"You don’t have to be mechanically inclined to feed stuff into a shredder," Emma said.
"Do the paper first," the woman said, "and then we’ll start on the electronics. Once we’re done, all you need to know is that you were never here and never shredded anything. Got it?"
"I was never where?" I asked.
"Good," the blonde woman said. She went out of the garage and Emma and I were alone. She started leafing through the instruction manual. I lifted one of the boxes off the floor and started riffling through the files.
"I would not do that if I were you." Emma said.
"I’m just trying to figure out what this is all about," I said.
"The less you know, the less you have to testify about later," she replied.
"All of this stuff is old, from like 2011," I said. "It probably needs to be shredded. Like this thing. It says it’s an official State Department analysis of Russian intentions regarding the Crimean peninsula. But the Russians didn’t take over Crimea until years later, right?"
"Hand that here," Emma said. I did, and she put the briefing paper in a slot at the top of the machine. It came out in a flurry of white paper fragments, covering me from head to foot in confetti.
"Stop laughing," I said. "Seriously, stop. This isn’t funny."
"Sorry, Justin," Emma said, when she was able to control herself. "I just need to install this cowling, so everything will go in the basket like it’s supposed to. You do look ridiculous, though."
I went back to riffling through the boxes. There were a lot of e-mails in there from someone named [email protected]. I picked one up at random. "Dear Huma," it said. "Please have janitorial staff do something about the private elevator–it still smells like Madeline Albright."
"Whoa," I said.
"I am telling you not to read that stuff," Emma said. "Fawn Hall would tell you the same thing, if she were here."
"It’s very sexy, the way you reference old political scandals like that," I said. "But look at this one. It says, ‘Dear General Schwartz, is there any reason why I can’t call my plane Air Force Three? Seems like it would be good P.R. for the Air Force, considering how many miles I put on it.’ Whose e-mails are these?"
"Justin, quit joking around, and start feeding that stuff into the top of this thing."
"There’s like ten e-mails here that look like whoever-this-is was trying to explain to Joe Biden how dishwashers work."
"Justin!" Emma said. "Quit snooping and get to work."
I did my best Oliver North imitation on the paper files, and then we took a little break before getting to the electronics. The blonde woman came back into the garage just as we were getting started.
"How are we doing?" she asked.
"Great," I said, while feeding a disk drive marked Donated by the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya into the feeder. It made a horrible screeching sound, and I was glad for the soundproofing.
"Quick question," Emma said. "Do you want us to feed the monitors into the shredder as well?"
"Of course," she said. "Anything that might have contained e-mails needs to go in the shredder."
"But they’re monitors," Emma said. "Just because you look at an e-mail on a monitor doesn’t mean that the monitor saves the e-mail on it. They don’t have memory."
"Do I look like an idiot?" the blonde woman said. "I know that. But if you want to try explaining that to her, you can go in there and wake her up and see what she thinks about that. Otherwise, do what you’re told."
"We’ll do it," Emma said. "But we want the rest of the week off. With pay. And donuts and coffee once we’re done."
"Or locally-sourced organic breakfast pastries," I said. "Or whatever."
"Fine," the blonde woman said. "Whatever you want. Just finish."
Two hours later, we were in the Dunkin’ Donuts over by the Watergate. I took a sip of my espresso. "I like how you stood up to her," I said.
"Stood up to who?" Emma said.
"You know," I said.
"Justin, we can’t talk about any of that. Ever. You understand why, don’t you? We could go to jail."
"I don’t see why. All that stuff was old and useless. Nobody would want it."
"Nobody," she said, "except for maybe Representative Issa, or Representative Gowdy. Look. We have to stop talking about this. I’m going home and go back to bed, and I suggest you do the same."
"Does that mean…"
"Your bed, Justin."
We finished our coffee and donuts and got back in the town car, and the driver dropped me off first. I fell into my bed like a dead thing, not even bothering to take off my Timberlands. It had been a long night, but I knew I had made a difference, except for the part about how all the shredded paper and electronics would end up in a landfill somewhere. Next time, I would advocate for something more environmentally responsible.