The Opening Of A Spy’s Guide To Taking Risks

John Braddock
5 min readJul 19, 2019

Here’s the opening of A Spy’s Guide To Taking Risks, released 19 July 2019:

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When the truck crashed into my taxi, I wasn’t ready.
I should have been ready. I knew cars malfunction. I knew weather makes roads slippery. I knew drivers make bad decisions. I knew there was a chance of a crash because I’d seen them before. And been in one myself. I knew a crash was a possibility before I got in the taxi.
But I didn’t think a crash was probable. I didn’t think it was likely.
Plus, I was thinking about other risks.
I was thinking about how to get safely and securely to a meeting with a sensitive source. I was thinking about how to handle the meeting, since the source was a volatile guy.
And I was thinking about the people who were hunting me.
When you’re a spy, surveillance teams and state security and the Border Patrol are using cell phone telemetry and drones and people on the ground to follow you. They’re trying to surveil you without you knowing, so they can stop you and arrest you or worse.
To escape them, you sometimes travel in alias. Which is a different set of risks. Travelling in alias means you can be arrested for anything. State security doesn’t need an excuse to arrest you. All they need to do is to stop you, and it’s over.
And something else that day made it riskier: It was my first time traveling in alias.
The first time you do anything, it’s hard to make probability judgments. You don’t know all that’s possible, much less what’s probable. You don’t know all the causal factors and you haven’t seen all the effects. You don’t know what to watch for. Which means you don’t know how to react. The first time you do anything, there’s a higher risk of failure.
But when you’re a spy, your job is to take risks. Your job is to figure out what’s possible, reason backward and make probability judgments. Your job is to get intelligence without the other side knowing you have it. Even while they’re hunting you.
Your job is to take risks.
The source I would meet that day had intelligence that was making a difference in the wars we were fighting.
Getting it was worth the risks.
Those were the risks I was thinking of when I got in the taxi.
I wasn’t thinking about the risk of a car crash.
Even so, I should have put on my seatbelt.
When I knocked on the passenger window of his taxi, the driver jumped out and met me at the rear.
Most taxi drivers are settled in. Relaxed. Their minds and bodies calmed by hours of waiting.
Not this guy. He was hyped up. He was frantic. He was jumpy. Like he might be on a drug. Maybe, the local amphetamine.
In the local language, he asked where I was going.
The train station, I told him.
He put a hand on my roller bag. I gave it to him, which turned out to be a mistake. He shoved the bag in the trunk. I slid onto the leather backseat.
The driver’s seat had wooden beads for blood circulation. The rearview mirror had hanging charms. The dashboard gaps held pieces of paper. Like a lot of taxi drivers, he was running a business on the side. Which was normal.
The taxi driver sprinted back to his door. Squishing the wooden beads to turn sideways, the driver asked again, “The train station?”
I had just told him that, and he was asking again. If I wasn’t distracted by looking out the back window for surveillance, I would have taken that as a bad sign. But I didn’t.
I said, Yes, the train station.
The driver accelerated into a traffic circle. He was driving fast, but not crazy fast. Not out-of-the-ordinary fast for a taxi driver in this part of the world.
As we went around the inner ring of the traffic circle, I watched out the back window for anything that could signal surveillance. Like someone on foot jumping into a van. Or someone going from a van to a taxi. Or unrelated people suddenly congregating. I was watching for what surveillance teams do when they don’t think anyone is watching.
There was nothing.
The driver completed a circle and passed the taxi stand. Which was strange. A full circle, instead of going toward the train station.
He was going fast in the inner ring of traffic. The outer ring of traffic was moving slow. He turned toward an exit.
A truck in the outer ring came across the exit.
Maybe the taxi driver thought his car was faster than it was. Maybe he thought the truck was slower than it was. Or maybe he was playing chicken. Maybe, he didn’t care.
Either way, the taxi driver accelerated. The truck accelerated, too.
The taxi driver cut across the front of the truck and gunned it.
It wasn’t enough.
Before a low-probability event like a car crash happens, it’s just an idea. It’s just an imagined thing. It’s just a statistic.
Then it happens.
Metal crunches. Plastic shatters. Your body was going one way. Now, it’s going another.
Like the shock from an explosion, your organs shift. You move in unexpected ways. If you’re not wearing a seatbelt, you go somewhere else.
I flew across the leather seat. My shoulder slammed into the far door.
The car landed half-on, half off the median.
A moment of quiet. Then curses from the taxi driver in a language that wasn’t the local language.
He turned and said, “It’s okay. Stay here, sir.”
He got out and looked at the taxi’s banged up rear.
The truck driver got out and looked at the truck’s banged up front.
Then, the screaming started.
Neither driver was a local, but the screams sounded like a common language. Maybe they had the same home country. Or shared a border. Maybe they were old ethnic enemies. Maybe their people had been screaming at each other for centuries.
Whatever the history of their peoples, they screamed and yelled with words I didn’t know.
I started thinking about a risk more serious than a car crash for a spy on his first day in alias: That the police were on their way.

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A Spy’s Guide To Taking Risks is available for a limited time at Amazon: