My High-Flying Life as a Corporate Spy Who Lied His Way to the Top
I was just looking to make rent when I stumbled into a part-time gig stealing secrets from Wall Street elite. I made millions once I realized how desperate we humans are for someone who will actually listen.
Phone to my ear, I listen to it ring the way a stage actor, surging with adrenaline, counts the final seconds to his cue. Eyes closed, I breathe in sync with it.
A woman picks up on the fourth ring. I recognize the voice and feel the tension in my knuckles relax a bit. My eyes pop open and I hit my mark.
“Hey, Zoe, it’s Kevin in compliance.”
“Hi, Kev,” she says.
“How you doin’?” I ask, my Philly accent like a fist tapping at the window.
“The cancer is back.”
It pains me to hear this. I’ve been calling Zoe for more than a decade, and she’s never been anything less than incredibly helpful. I count on her to help me do my job and do it well. Though we’ve never met, I like her and feel like we know each other. I hate the idea of her getting sick and leaving the company, one of the largest financial institutions in the world. Among other things, it means my work will get much more challenging.
I need her to look up the name, title and cell phone number for a high-level executive at the bank, plus the names and numbers of everyone who reports to him. I’m in kind of a hurry, but I’m not an asshole. I need to hear about her illness first.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Zoe. What’s the situation?”
“It’s not good,” she says.
I can tell she is going to say something else, and I’m pretty sure I know what it is. She’s going to share with me how much time she has left. I can hear it in her pauses. After so many years working the phone, I’ve learned to pick out the nuances, the things being said behind what’s being said, entire life stories even, in a hesitation or vocal inflection, in blank moments in time.
“Hey, I had a friend who was down for the count, and he’s still around five years later,” I say. “They’re coming up with new treatments every day. You’ve just got to stick around, and they’ll find something.”
“I’m on a new chemical now.”
“See? Don’t you worry. You and I will be having these chats for years to come.”
I mean it. She knows I do. I can hear it in the whisper of a smile on the other end of the line.
A few years ago, after she got divorced, Zoe tried to initiate a little flirtation. I was game. Among other things, that kind of rapport would help grease the wheels when I needed help with something.
“Are you single?” she’d asked.
“I am at the moment.”
“Do you ever visit Dallas?”
“No,” I said. “Working in compliance, I only get to travel to state capitals to meet with regulators. Austin is as close as I get.”
“My daughter has a softball tournament in Austin this weekend. Are you going to still be there Friday? You could stay on. It would be fun to finally meet you.”
“I wish. But I’m out of here tonight as soon as we file these docs, then on to the next capital for more of the same.”
“Darn it,” she said. “Maybe next time.”
Zoe didn’t stay single long. Once she remarried, our chats focused on my miserable, lonely days traveling around trying to please uptight state regulators. Zoe often reminds me that my life shouldn’t all be about work.
“I hope I’ll be around long enough to see you getting out there more,” she says.
“You and me both,” I respond, and my tone cues her that we need to get to the real purpose of my call.
“What do you need, Kev?”
I sigh and give her the name of a senior executive. I need to know his entire organization from top to bottom, every name all the way down to the junior analyst level, plus each individual’s location and cell phone number. Zoe knows I’m off-site and don’t have access to any of this information at the moment.
“Wow,” she says as she pulls up the name on the bank’s internal database. “He has over 200 people in his group. This is going to take forever.”
Zoe reads me all the names and titles. She gives me precise descriptions of what each team does and offers each individual’s cell number and physical location. My hand cramps as I scribble everything down. By the time she finishes, more than an hour has passed. I thank her earnestly.
“I’ve gotta take a break after that,” Zoe says. “I’m exhausted.”
“You deserve one,” I say.
Zoe knows that what I do is critical for our multibillion-dollar company to continue doing what it does, so she provides what I ask of her, over and over, year after year, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with her job. Even though it eats up hours of her time. Even though she is not authorized to give me any of that information.
And, most important, even though every single thing she knows about me, and everything I’ve ever told her, is a lie.
My name is not Kevin, and I don’t work in compliance.
I am not an employee of Zoe’s company, let alone an executive.
I’ve never met a state regulator, uptight or otherwise.
I am not sitting in an antiseptic office in a blocky municipal building in Austin. I’ve got my feet up on my desk in the converted toolshed that is my home office in Malibu. Shirtless, in board shorts and flip-flops, I gaze out at the Pacific and breathe in its familiar salty musk while I casually manipulate her.
I am not single. My wife’s in the house doing yoga.
My friend who survived cancer? That actually is true. Every good liar knows you need to throw in one big truth to anchor the rest of the bullshit.
But all that internal data about reporting structures and titles and top earners? One of the largest executive search firms in the world has secretly hired me to steal it. And those private cell phone numbers? My client is going to target the bank’s best moneymakers and try to poach them, securing their meaty portfolios as well. It’s late 2006, and Wall Street is bursting — year-end bonuses are projected to be 10 to 25 percent higher than last year’s, netting the top bankers and traders as much as $40 million apiece.
All of which is to say, this seemingly innocuous phone call is taking place in a capitalist ecosystem defined by outrageous, unchecked excess and, yes, rampant deception. The world of corporate spying is shady but lucrative, and I am one of the best.