A Modest Proposal
To explain how I happened to find myself in that Polish cemetery on the cusp of the millennium, I'll have to back up fifteen years to a couple of projects I worked on for an agency of the U.S. government. (I'd name the agency, but I don't know which one it was, although I certainly have my suspicions. And yes, I did ask. More than once.)
It all started innocently enough. A friend who'd recently gone into the publishing business called me and asked if I'd like to write a book for him. When I arrived at his office, he ushered me into a small conference room. A short, balding, middle-aged man wearing a rumpled suit and wire-rimmed glasses sat alone at a long table. To my surprise, my friend excused himself and left me alone with the mystery man, who shook my hand diffidently and asked me to call him Sheldon.
Sheldon had a surprising proposition for me. He wanted me to write a book about a diminutive personal computer that was being developed by a major computer company. I was free to write whatever I wanted, he assured me. But when the book had undergone a final edit and was ready to print, he would take it to "his people" and they would make a few, subtle revisions the substitution of a word here and there, a few minor grammatical changes, nothing that would attract any attention. The book would eventually be read by a team of Soviet scientists whom "we" would otherwise be unable to contact. The scientists would be able to interpret messages hidden in the revisions, thereby relaying to them some important information that our government wanted them to know.
To say that I was taken aback would be a massive understatement. I didn't really know who Sheldon was or for what agency he worked or even if he worked with the government at all, for that matter. I had no way of verifying his story. What if Sheldon was really looking for a way to pass messages to evil people who would do terrible things with the information I unwittingly communicated to them?
But in less than an hour, Sheldon convinced me to accept his proposition, and we shook hands on an agreement.
In retrospect, it might seem like I came around awfully quickly, and without giving it a lot of thought. But Sheldon had two convincing arguments. For one thing, he pointed out, "they" could have gone ahead and made the changes without my knowledge or approval. Editors do that kind of thing all the time. ("But we don't like to work that way," Sheldon added, reassuringly.) And probably more to the point, Sheldon offered me a nonrefundable advance that was well in excess of the royalties I was ever likely to earn on sales of the book. So because they were offering me a lot of money to do something that, as Sheldon kept reminding me, they could just as easily do without me, it seemed foolish for me to turn up my nose at his generosity.
In any event, I wrote the book, and Sheldon's people made their revisions. I didn't see the changes until after the book was printed, but Sheldon was right, they were inconsequential some unusual wording that I thought was awkward, but nothing that was likely to offend any but the pickiest reviewer. In fact, the changes struck me as so insignificant that I had a hard time imagining that anyone could actually glean any useful information from them. But then again, hiding useful information in coded messages is not exactly my specialty.
Unfortunately, Sheldon's people had misjudged the manufacturer's commitment to the computer that was the subject of my book. A few months after the book hit the shelves, the manufacturer announced that they were discontinuing production.
The day after the announcement, Sheldon called me. Would I like to do it again? This time it would be a book about a technology, rather than a specific product, so the life-cycle of my book would be less subject to the vagaries of the marketplace. He already had an arrangement with a publisher, all he needed was a writer. Salivating at the thought of more easy income, I unhesitatingly agreed.
But when the book was released, I was horrified to see that Sheldon's changes were considerably more extensive than the ones he had made in my earlier effort. Not only did awkward passages abound in nearly every chapter, in at least one instance Sheldon's revision had resulted in a blatant technical inaccuracy. I was livid. And I was concerned about how I would respond to the criticisms that were sure to come my way. "It's not my fault," I imagined myself saying. "The errors were slipped into my book by a guy named Sheldon who works for a super-secret government agency." Somehow, I doubted that my explanation would be met with widespread credulity.
But I needn't have worried. Despite the gratifying success of the book, not one person ever contacted me to complain about either my grammar or my grasp of the subject matter. So perhaps, I was finally forced to admit, the problems were not as egregious as I had imagined them out to be.
Nonetheless, I stewed as I waited for Sheldon to call me to talk about my next project, and I looked forward to giving him a piece of my mind. (After which I'd accept his next proposal, of course.) But that call never came. In fact, I didn't hear from Sheldon for another fifteen years... but I'm getting way ahead of my story.
It occurs to me that you may be wondering whether I should be telling you any of this. Am I violating some kind of State Secrets act? Am I endangering sensitive projects and compromising intelligence assets?
Obviously, I believe that the answer to those questions is "no" or else I wouldn't be writing this. Sheldon wasn't exactly what you'd call obsessed with secrecy. On one occasion, he did mention that it would be "helpful" if I didn't tell anybody about what I was doing, but he didn't stress it, and I didn't feel any sense of urgency about it. (Of course, there wasn't much of a sense of urgency about anything Sheldon did or said. In fact, he came across more as an overworked government accountant than a dynamic government agent.) Nonetheless, I took Sheldon's suggestion and refrained from telling anyone about my all-too-brief relationship with The Spy Who Edited Me.
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©2007 Henry Charles Mishkoff