DEBRIEFING NUMBER: KL156-396/R6.
LOCATION: Base 302, Building 2, Room -448.
PRESENT: Agent Harper (lead investigator); Agent codename Labrador.
Harper: Good evening, Agent Labrador. I am Agent Harper.
Labrador: Hi, hello.
H: I am assuming you have been informed of the purpose of this debriefing. Is that correct?
L: Uhm, not exactly, no. But I have a fair idea.
[both agents remain silent for several seconds]
H: Would you like to tell us what that idea is?
L: Right, yes. I, eh, I was in charge of the Agency’s centre of operations in [REDACTED] during the years leading up to the recent [pauses] developments there, which were likely instigated, if not outright caused, by the actions of field agent Thistle.
H: That is our main concern, yes. Now, I understand you were the head of said centre of operations, as well as its only agent, is that correct?
L: Yeah, that’s it. A year before the [pauses] incidents began, the centre of operations was composed of five agents, myself included. We were in contact with four different field agents for most of my team’s period there, up to the time when the elections resulted in a complete shift in the country’s military and diplomatic policies. HQ back here decided we didn’t need that many field agents anymore – and they were probably right – so all but one were relocated. Agents Poppy, Hyacinth and Yarrow left the country, while Agent Thistle, our most effective field agent up to that point, remained behind.
H: This is what our records, say, yes. Our analysts agreed with your assessment of Agent Thistle’s effectiveness and decided it was best for the other three to have new assignments.
L: Well, my assessment of Agent Thistle changed soon after – but we’ll get to that. As I was saying, we went down from four field agents to one in a matter of days. This meant we now had more ops agents than was needed. It’s not an exact science, but you usually want to keep your ops-to-field ratio greater than one, rarely greater than two. When you just have the one field agent, you need two ops agents.
H: Two? We have established you were the only operations agent, though.
L: Hmm. That’s right. That wasn’t the plan, though. Out of the five ops agents in [REDACTED], Agent Shar Pei and I stayed behind to support Thistle. The other three, Samoyed, Bulldog and Great Dane, were relocated.
H: Agent Shar Pei? We have no records of an Agent Shar Pei during the time of the events we are discussing.
L: No, you wouldn’t. She died soon after the other agents left.
H: Died? Was she–?
L: No, no, nothing sinister. At least not for our line of business. It was an accident. The public bus she was in crashed after its brakes failed. Happens once in a while in [REDACTED]. Not much money put into the maintenance of the bus fleet. Nor into any other transport that isn’t military, really. Not much money put into much of anything at all, in fact. ‘Course, the pressure our government puts on [REDACTED] doesn’t help, either. In a way – in the way the [REDACTED] government would twist it, mind you – one might say it was her own country that got Agent Shar Pei killed. Her and twelve other people riding the bus, including the driver. Twenty or thirty others injured, if I remember correctly. You see, the bus rammed into–.
H: Is this of relevance to the debriefing, Agent Labrador?
L: [chuckles] No, not really, I suppose. Sorry, didn’t mean to laugh either. Bit nervous, I guess. I mean, this room – concrete walls, metal table, two chairs, just the one tiny light, your mirror there on the wall – kind of like the movies, eh?
[both agents remain silent for several seconds]
L: [clears throat] Anyway, the point is that I was left in charge of a field agent I’d never met before.
H: You had never met Agent Thistle?
L: No, never. The only field agents I had interacted with was Poppy and Hyacinth, but they’d both left. Shar Pei had been the main contact with Agent Thistle and I was meant to be involved in the communications soon enough, but that bus prevented it from happening as smoothly as we would’ve liked. Of course, I had to take over Shar Pei’s duties anyway, which I did. And it seemed to go fine at first, but things soon deteriorated, which is when Agent Thistle–.
H: Hold on, please, Agent Labrador. We would like to understand everything that occurred leading up to the events in question so we can make a proper assessment of what led to the current situation.
L: I’ll tell you what happened: Agent Thistle just went off and–.
H: Agent Labrador, please. Just the facts. Now, Agent Shar Pei died, so you had to take over communications with Agent Thistle. You mentioned you were meant to be involved soon enough.
L: Yeah, right. So Shar Pei had already explained to me how she and Agent Thistle contacted each other. [chuckles] Quite ingenious, if you ask me. Shar Pei’s idea. She was really into cooking.
L: Yeah. You see, she had started this recipe exchange group years earlier, down in one of the community buildings on the East side of the city. Every couple of Tuesdays she and ten or fifteen people would get together, each one bringing some dish together with the recipe for it. They’d have a theme each time – pies, pastas, casseroles, along those lines. So they’d bring in their dishes, everybody got to try everyone else’s stuff and everybody shared the recipe to what they’d brought, so you could make it at home.
H: Agent Labrador, is this leading anywhere or are you digressing again?
L: No digressing, no. This is relevant.
H: Alright. Proceed, then.
L: So that was it, you would bring your own dish and recipe and go back with everyone else’s recipes. Get it? [pauses] The recipes! They were the messages! Agent Shar Pei had come up with an elaborate system of hiding a message in a recipe, using the different ingredients, quantities, cooking methods, all that stuff. She’d even written up several templates with which to start a recipe to make sure it would produce a passable dish. Shar Pei, though, she had a knack for it. One minute you were enjoying a sweet, creamy rice pudding she had made, the next minute she was telling you the instructions to take out [REDACTED] were hidden in it. Rich ragùs became the start of subversion plots, the contents of stir fries were spicier than you realised... you never knew what impact your food was having on the affairs of [REDACTED]. On top of that, the messages were interconnected. To decipher one, you had to have the previous one the other person had sent. That way, even if someone did intercept a message and somehow got their hands on the ciphering system – the meaning of ingredients, amounts, cooking methods and so on– they still wouldn’t be able to decrypt it unless they also had the previous recipe sent by the other person. That Shar Pei was one clever cookie. No pun intended.
H: So you learned to encode messages in this way?
L: Exactly. Shar Pei had already shown me how it worked and I had written up a couple of messages myself, which she had delivered, but I had never attended any of the meetings. I had the last one Thistle had sent to Shar Pei too, so I could use it to write my next message. I was lined up to go instead of Shar Pei the week after she died, which Thistle had been informed of, so, in a sense, the disruption to the communications with Agent Thistle caused by Shar Pei’s death was relatively minor.
H: You attended the next meeting, then?
L: Right. The problem, though, was that I didn’t know how I was going to recognise Agent Thistle from the dozen other attendees. Remember, I had only ever met Poppy and Hyacinth. But I couldn’t not go, of course. In the end, I needn’t have worried that much. [chuckles] That week the theme was cookies. Chocolate chip, raisins, oatmeal, whatever, but they had to be cookies. I made raspberry and white chocolate ones – the raspberry being [REDACTED], and the white chocolate the instructions to [REDACTED]. Not great, but edible.
H: Agent Labrador, the facts, please.
L: Well, that’s the thing. Mine were edible, as were most others. In fact, many of the others were better than edible. But one recipe stood out over the rest. Not for being good, but for being terrible, in instructions and execution. The dough was burnt on the outside but still raw in the middle, they felt – and tasted – like cement powder, there was too much salt in them, the chocolate was too bitter… Some people were polite about it. Others, not so much. What I did hear, though, was that this wasn’t a one-off thing. The person who’d brought in the cookies consistently brought in terrible recipes, but never seemed to improve, nor care what people thought about them. I also recognised hints of one of Shar Pei’s templates in it. So in the end, Agent Thistle was easier to identify than I’d initially thought.
H: I see. But things soon deteriorated.
L: Yes, very much and very quickly. That first message went fine – something I was quite relieved about, not having had Shar Pei to review it before sending it off. The white chocolate blended in fully with the raspberry, so to speak. The next message exchange also went fairly OK. A couple of changes in the execution of the instructions, but something I attributed to my inaccuracies when writing them up as a recipe. I could see how some parts were a bit ambiguous, so I strived to triple check the following ones, tried to make sure it was clear as water at room temperature. But Agent Thistle was wildly misreading my instructions, or ignoring them altogether. The main messages would be sidelined by some unimportant detail blown out of proportion, wrong people were targeted, the right people were targeted but the wrong action carried out. It was mad. The replies too were off in some parts, I was finding it hard to decipher them in some cases. I’d heard of teething problems between field and ops agents, but this was something else. I checked and rechecked my recipes and eventually concluded that Thistle was going rogue. I was about to call it in when the [pauses] incidents happened.
H: You are talking of the events of the week of [REDACTED].
L: [remains silent for several seconds] For crying out loud, it was the president of [REDACTED]! And [REDACTED]! Only days apart, too! Why would…?
H: According to Agent Thistle, those were your instructions.
L: My instructions? That’s a lie! I would never–!
H: Please, Agent Labrador, sit down. Thank you. I am not making accusations here, I am just stating what Agent Thistle told us when we debriefed her two days ago. All we want to understand is where things went wrong. She said she confirmed with– Agent Labrador? Are you OK? You look pale all of a–.
[chair clattering; muffled sounds]
H: Here, sit down. Have some water. Is that any better? Are you OK?
L: [gulps] You… you said she confirmed…
H: I was saying that, yes. She confirmed–.
L: There it is again. She. She confirmed.
H: Is there a problem?
L: That man. That bloody man. He really was just a terrible cook.
H: [pauses] I think we’re done here.
END OF TRANSCRIPT