"High Roller"by Steve Legomsky

You couldn't design a more fitting stereotype of a mid-level State Department functionary than Connor Kelly. Forty-one years old, just a bit on the paunchy side, physically nondescript, and with thinning grey hair and wire-rim glasses, he would barely have been noticeable on the sidewalks of Washington but for his pronounced limp, the result of a boot camp shooting accident that terminated his brief enlistment in the U.S. Army Reserves almost twenty years ago. The problem isn't that he is so exquisitely forgettable. The problem is how much that bothers him. He has neither expectation nor need of actual greatness, but he has a deep-rooted longing for others to perceive him as great, or at least as someone who is interesting and important - as someone who inspires notice. It's not as if he has no life outside of work. He has been happily married to Lucy for the past fifteen years. She runs her own realty business out of their home, and their joint income has left them financially secure. They adore their two children, twelve-year-old Matilda and nine-year-old Scottie, both healthy and well-adjusted, except that extremely myopic Scotty is self-conscious about his thick eyeglasses. Connor and Lucy are perfectly content to spend quiet evenings at home with the kids and to take annual three-week family vacations at their lakeside cottage in West Virginia, just a three-hour drive from their home in suburban Chevy Chase, Maryland. It bugged him no end when his mother told him a year or so ago that she so admired his willingness to accept who he is. "So many men your age," she had said, "spend years trying to achieve, achieve, achieve, when they really have no particular talent. You've always been perfectly happy in your own skin. You know your limitations. That's a sign of true maturity." She was wrong, of course; nothing disturbs Connor more than being perceived by others as ordinary. "Ordinary" is just another word for "insignificant," he feels. And the fact that his own mother thinks of him in that way has been especially hurtful. Deep down, he knows that is also how his wife and children, as well as his friends and co-workers, perceive him. And the deepest hurt of all is that in his honest moments he fully understands that they're right. To be sure, they all like him; they just find him dull and unremarkable. Even though he accepts that he is who he is, he would at least like for other people to think there is something noteworthy about him. He was always honest and transparent in his relationships with Lucy and the children – until the day he concocted the story that he had been promoted to an exciting State Department position that would require top-secret security clearance. His responsibilities will be so sensitive, he explained, that once he is cleared and has begun in his new position he will no longer be able to discuss his work externally, not even with his family. There will be times, he was sorry to say, that his work would require him to travel. On those occasions he will not be able to tell them where he is; he might be away for several days at a clip; and he will be incommunicado. There will be some danger, he acknowledged, but the risks are not extreme and this is something he feels obliged to do. Except for a very small group, he said, even his State Department colleagues had no inkling of his new assignment. His wife and children were the only people outside the State Department and the White House who now knew about this, and they were never to reveal any of it to anyone. If a friend or neighbor were to raise the subject, the family was to insist that Connor is still in the same mid-level State Department position even though his work now requires occasional travel. And in case a State Department employee were ever to ask Lucy or the children, they were to claim that they know nothing about this, because, he said, he was under strict instructions to tell no one about this change -- not even his family. He was doing so anyway because he felt they had a right to know and to object if that was their wish. He will turn it down, he told them, if any of the three of them ask him to do so, though he conveyed how important this was to him personally and to our national security, and how strongly "the people at the top" believe he is the man for this job. After much discussion about the impact this would have on his family life (most days he'll still be in DC and coming home at the usual time – it's just that there will be instances when that's not the case), they all consented, albeit reluctantly. Connor smiled appreciatively when Scottie told him that he was proud of him. Connor knew that so grand a fabrication would require careful, elaborate precautions. He bought two new suits, explaining to Lucy that he would need them for those days when he meets with high-level U.S. or foreign government officials. He also conspicuously applied for and obtained a passport, even though he had never been out of the country except for a couple of childhood day trips to Canada with his family when they lived in Detroit and a single trip to Europe with his buddies shortly after college. His wife wondered why the government didn't issue him some kind of diplomatic passport. He explained that that would be the fastest way to blow his cover. When he travels overseas, he would need to pass as a tourist or business visitor, not a U.S. government agent. Connor's intention was to periodically take short trips overseas, both for the thrill of seeing new places and to maintain the story he had told his family about his likely overseas missions. Money posed a hard problem to solve. The family income was clearly enough to finance occasional overseas travel, but access was an issue. He could not make sudden large withdrawals from his and Lucy's joint bank account without Lucy noticing. So he secretly opened a bank account in his own name, got a credit card in his own name, and arranged to pay his credit card balances via automatic monthly withdrawals from this new account. To access the money he would need, he began making larger and more frequent cash withdrawals from his and Lucy's joint savings account, being careful not to increase the amounts or the frequency so drastically as to attract notice. He would then spend as little as possible and deposit the remainder into his private account. When the savings became sufficient to pay for an overseas trip, he would travel on what he would tell his wife was secret government business. He arranged paperless transactions so that neither bank account nor credit card statements would be mailed to his home. Physically receiving the credit card was tricky. He had to specify a home address that the card would be sent to – an address he would also need for credit card online transactions. But he could not risk Lucy seeing it when she opens the mail. He mulled his options. He thought about using the street address of the State Department building in which he works, but that too seemed risky. The bank that issued the credit card might realize that this was a government office rather than a residence, and even if they didn't, the mailroom might well send it back rather than check the directory to see whether there was a Connor Kelly working somewhere in that massive building. He could reduce the latter risk by specifying "5th floor" in the address, but that would signal the bank that this was not a personal residence. He settled on a better option. Knowing that Lucy would soon be visiting her parents in California, that she would be away for a week, and that it would take 10-14 days to receive the card, he timed his online credit card application so that the card would arrive during her absence. Luckily for him, it did. One day, a few weeks after Lucy's return, he dressed for the first time in one of his new suits. Lucy told him he looked good. "So today's the day, huh?" Connor's sole reply was a wry smile. It took three months for Connor to accumulate enough money for his first overseas trip, a three-day jaunt to London. He told Lucy and the kids that he was about to embark on his first foreign "mission," but that it was a very safe project for which they had no cause to worry. Matilda asked him where he was going. "I can't tell you, sweetheart. I'm sorry. But I don't expect it to take more than 3 or 4 days at the most. And remember you can't tell a soul about what I'm doing. If anyone asks about me, just tell them I'm in New York for a few days for my job." He allowed his wife to drive him to the airport for his overnight flight, and he began his new life with a mix of excitement and anxiety. Upon arrival at Heathrow the following morning, he took a taxi to his relatively modest hotel and was miffed when told that his room wasn't ready yet. "Check-in time is 3:00, sir." "It's only 9:30 a.m. What am I supposed to do in the meantime? I didn't sleep a wink on the plane and I really need a nap." "I'm very sorry, sir, but you're welcome to sit in the lobby or visit our restaurant. I'll keep checking with the maids, and I'll try to get you into your room as soon as it's ready. There's very likely to be something available well before 3:00; I just can't guarantee it. I can take your mobile phone number if you'd like me to call you." With that, Connor hung out in the restaurant, wondering whether this whole ruse was worth it. The plane ride was no fun, and neither was sitting alone in a restaurant, bored and exhausted. Happily, his room was ready just two hours later and he was able to take a much-needed nap. He woke up after 3 hours, feeling groggy and disoriented, but after a cup of coffee his spirits and his energy returned and he spent the rest of the afternoon on a joyous bus tour of London's most famous attractions. The next day he summoned the courage to start exploring London on his own. He even managed to figure out how to navigate the Tube. The adrenaline was flowing, and he was proud of himself for doing so well on his first-ever solo overseas trip. When he returned home, tired but exhilarated, he was bursting at the seams with a desire to tell Lucy all about his trip and his independent exploration of a foreign city. Of course, he could not do so, and when she asked him how his trip was, all he could muster was that "it was very satisfactory. Things went quite well." It took several months for Connor to save up enough money for a second trip. This time he wanted to try a non-English-speaking city, though his natural timidity confined his search to western Europe. He settled on Madrid, because he had taken Spanish in high school. Upon arrival at Madrid-Barajas Airport after a direct overnight flight, he repeated his London routine – a short nap, a bus tour of the highlights, and then two days of independent sightseeing that included several hours at the Prado. He was developing a growing confidence in his travel capabilities and a resolve to branch out next time to a more exotic place outside his comfort zone. His third overseas venture came only after six more months because this far more expensive trip required more time to build up his secret travel fund. He booked a whirlwind one-week Southeast Asia tour that took him to Bangkok, Vientiane, Ho Chi Minh City