Exceleco and Primeriprise competed with one another like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Sharpening the rivalry, their headquarters were less than a mile down the road from one another, amidst a stretch of office parks and malls that had sprouted from a sleepy expanse of potato fields in a few short years.

Steven Striver thus was pleased as he sat outside the office of Jack Armstrong, Exceleco’s Vice President of Marketing. After finishing college with a degree in history, he’d spent the last three years as a competitive intelligence analyst for the area’s electric and gas utility. Both Exceleco and Primeriprise had posted job openings for someone to serve in that role, and both had agreed to interview him. Either position would be a big step up for a “CIA”, as he liked to think of himself.

Steven was of average height, slightly pudgy, with a mop of brown hair that spilled over his forehead, prompting him to sweep it back with one hand now and then. His bright brown eyes were obscured by tortoise-shell glasses that he occasionally pushed up his nose. He looked like an older version of a prep school student, the kind for whom a jacket-and-tie didn’t look natural or comfortable. As he was waiting, Steven could hear Armstrong wrapping up a phone call through the open door. He was focusing on the many ways in which he met the requirements in the job posting when one comment caught his attention. “Have you seen the latest memo on FireBolt, the one they send to Jenkins at home?” Armstrong asked. There was a pause. “Yeah, he still gets them, even though he left Primeriprise six months ago. Odd, huh?”

Steven wondered what FireBolt might be, but when he heard Armstrong finishing the phone call, he concerned himself with getting the interview off to a smooth start. He had the situation in hand as Armstrong ushered him into the office, directing him toward a chair. “I appreciate your willingness to see me sooner than planned,” Steven said, with a nod and a smile. “I only asked whether you might because Primeriprise said it would be fast-tracking the hire.”

“So I understand, and that’s fine, because we’ve decided to fast-track it too. And we appreciate your telling us that you’re also interviewing at Primeriprise.” Armstrong looked a bit over 30. He had the muscular build of an athlete, obscured by his sports jacket, along with prominent teeth, a pink complexion and strawberry blond hair parted on one side and touching his ears.

Steven maintained his poise throughout the interview. He never stumbled in describing how he met the qualifications that Armstrong asked about. His gestures conveyed a relaxed confidence; in discussing his ability to multitask, he held out his arms as if he were comparing the weight of two objects. Armstrong told him he’d get a call about scheduling a follow-up interview with Dennis Hawthorne, senior vice president for marketing.

The next day Steven visited Primeriprise for an interview with Roger Wrightson, the vice president of marketing there. Wrightson was about the same age as Armstrong, but thinner, with close-cropped dark hair and eyes that were more welcoming. More of a laid-back partier than a driven athlete, Steven guessed. Wrightson got the interview going by sketching out the company’s strategy. Steven raised his eyebrows when Wrightson mentioned FireBolt, identifying it as a major redesign of the company’s website for customers. The details were being kept under wraps until the launch. Steven, seeing an opening to demonstrate his intelligence-gathering acumen, casually commented that people at Exceleco seemed to know something about FireBolt; he’d overheard someone there talking about it.

“Oh, we know that they know about FireBolt,” Wrightson replied. “From what we can tell, they don’t necessarily have it right.” He flashed a grin. “You can’t believe everything you hear about something like that.” The conversation moved on to the requirements in the job posting. After handling Wrightson’s questions about them, Steven took the initiative to identify other qualifications he met. Some, he suggested with a flick of the wrist, were a given, like the ability to work independently, but in a team environment. Wrightson told him he’d get a call about next steps. Steven felt the discussion went at least as smoothly as it had at Exceleco.

A week later, Steven returned to Exceleco for his interview with Armstrong’s boss, Hawthorne, who was a bit older, probably in his 40s, with neat hair graying at the edges and a more cerebral look than either Armstrong or Wrightson. A bit like a professor, Steven thought. Hawthorne kicked things off by asking whether Steven had met with Primeriprise yet. Steven said that he had. “Did they share much about FireBolt – the new website?” Hawthorne asked, raising his eyebrows.

“It came up,” Steven said, “but the details are being kept under wraps until the launch.” Opting to ingratiate himself a bit, he continued. “I did pick up something though. They know that you know about FireBolt.”

“That’s not a problem,” Hawthorne said. “I don’t want you to think that we’re behind on this. We know that they know that we know about FireBolt. It makes us wonder, you know, when we come across information on it, like something in writing, whether it’s actually true, or maybe it’s meant to mislead us.”

Steven felt a little distracted as the interview continued, nagged by a suspicion the competitive intelligence role at Exceleco, or Primeriprise for that matter, might be a bit more challenging than he’d anticipated. However, he stayed focused on his qualifications. Hawthorne was particularly interested in his ability to thrive in a rapidly changing environment. “Good!” he exclaimed, making a note, after Steven cited examples of how he had done so. In wrapping up, Hawthorne invited Steven to check in with his contact in human resources if he hadn’t heard anything in a week’s time.

Two days later Steven was back at Primeriprise for his second interview there, with its senior vice president of marketing, Howard Richardson. If Hawthorne was the professor, Richardson struck Steven as a former military man, with a similar look but craggier features, and somewhat cold blue eyes. Steven was feeling more comfortable posing as something of an insider. When Richardson mentioned FireBolt, Steven, seated across a table from him, turned slightly, raising his right foot onto his left knee and resting his right elbow on the back of his chair. “By the way,” he said, “they know that you know that they know about FireBolt. It seems to lead them to question whether everything they hear about it is actually true.”

“Let me share the view from where I sit, Steven,” Richardson replied. “I want to assure you that we’re on top of this matter. We know that they know that we know that they know about FireBolt, and that they don’t believe some of what they read about it. Or hear about it.”

Steven paused, sorting through this latest revelation before replying. “So let’s say if they, hypothetically, got some information about FireBolt, especially if someone from here gave it to them, it might be better for them not to believe it?”

“Under those circumstances, they might not be sure whether it was true or not, and that would be good for us,” Richardson said.

Again Steven felt a bit disoriented as the interview continued, but again he left thinking he’d done well. He had no trouble addressing Richardson’s interest in his ability to think strategically and execute tactically. Richardson told him he was welcome to check in with human resources if he hadn’t heard anything in a week.

Two months later, Steven was still waiting for someone from either company to return his weekly calls, and both jobs were still posted. He’d started to think seriously about graduate school; continuing his study of history had been in the back of his mind for a while. Or maybe he’d respond to that advertisement he’d seen about career opportunities with the Central Intelligence Agency.

David Ludlum lives in Princeton and recruits experienced financial advisors. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious; any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is plausibly deniable.

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