The Stamp Collector
by Robin Claiborne
Robin Claiborne is a horror and fantasy writer living and working in New York. He is a stay-at-home father and short-story writer, and loves writing stories he’ll one day share with his family.
Imagine you were going to the post office to mail a letter. You’d be remiss to not include a stamp on the upper right hand corner. And then imagine a stamp that was magic that allowed the user to imprint their most embarrassing secrets on the back with a single lick. This stamp would know you’re name, you’re address, you’re genetic information, and heritage, your innermost thoughts and secrets. And the letter that was enclosed would fill with the details of this encounter with the magic stamp.
That was the premise I was when I first made the stamp. It was easier than you think. First, you have to know a little bit about wizardry, and then some. Since normal everyday humans are only slightly aware of how much information they choose to give out, it wasn’t much of a stretch to bend their consent by placing thousands upon thousands of these stamps in post offices around the world. If you’re thinking of Saint Nicolas, that portly old man, the one with access to all children’s deeds and actions, and wonder how does he do it? It often happens we choose to believe something isn’t real because we haven’t found the “how” yet. So the more you do something the more your imagination should run as to how to execute something.
St. Nick was a dear friend of mine. We’re more like frenemies now. He doesn’t much approve of my work, but I don’t approve of his labor practices myself, so who’s to judge. He couldn’t do his job without me, and I’d be remiss without his employment.
One Christmas St. Nick was unusually curmudgeonly. He’d been at his job for more than a millennium, so I can understand where he was coming from. He talked openly about retiring, but was stuck with who was to succeed him should he leave. To rectify this problem St. Nick held a contest to see who would be most fit to run the North Pole. Charitable individuals, world leaders, businessmen and trendsetters from around the world showed up to the first ever “St. Nick Succession Contest,” or SNSC for short. It was a momentous event, with all the employees of the North Pole in alternance (mandatory as you might imagine). But Santa wasn’t the only one not in high spirits that day. Turns out there was a lot of ill will circulating around the North Pole that particular Christmas, as Santa had done some downsizing recently to make the business a little leaner for the oncoming successor. You’d think Santa himself would have the self-confidence to be a leader in that moment, but he was just following what he felt the successor would want him to do. He was eager for retirement.
But St. Nick had a problem. He had fired me the previous Christmas. Said he wasn’t comfortable in my abilities to see into people’s most intimate thoughts anymore, and could I tell you my perplexity when he did. I was befuddled, and lacked any ideas who might want to employ me after losing my biggest client. So I started the arduous task of looking for a job. They were all uninteresting. I tried Hallmark, who wanted everyone’s deepest romantic thoughts for their holiday cards. As if we didn’t have enough canned messages to send to each other because no one could think of anything genuine to say. I even looked into the foreign office, who might want the intelligence to be gathered to protect their assets abroad. But once word got out that I, the Stamp Collector, was looking for work, I got more than I ever bargained for.
Ronald was new at the postal service. If it could’ve been anyone that I would chose to play with, nothing outwardly about him would indicate that he was my target. He was a good enough employee, diligent and organized, qualities you look for in the postal service, and ones that he used to secure a job as a runner, or mail man. But one day Ronald was on his usual route around the Hamptons and opened up a very special mailbox. I had hidden one of my magic stamps in that box because the mother had secretly been cheating on her husband for more than a decade, and Santa needed to know those kinds of details to add to his moral tabulations. If you think about it, as a team, Santa and I were more powerful than any God previously conceived. Whether you were awake or sleeping, once you opened that letter, you’re innermost thoughts would be written in magic ink across the lettered lines, and transmitted back to the North Pole for analysis. All the details were there: the ones about how she always waited until Herbert, her husband, was working late, before putting the kids to bed and inviting her confidant, a former plumber previously employed by them, to come by so that they could do their dirty deed. In all fairness to Vanessa, the mother, it wasn’t a happy marriage. Herbert and her had long stopped caring for one another and the marriage was an empty box without a sender or receiver, that is to say, going nowhere. It was only the children that held them together, but as history shows, that never works out no matter how long the charade is kept up because of them.
As it turns out however, Herbert was not your average employee. He was an analyst for the intelligence services, and his long nights were spent in complete faithfulness to his wife and family, but mostly employed analyzing various sources of information for their indications of enemy means and motives. Thought the nature of his work was somewhat grey in character, sometimes moral, and sometimes employing means that were amoral, he was in ambiguous standing with the man upstairs, that is to say, more north. He felt conflicted about his work, and often times wondered whether he was doing more harm than good. He also felt like the battles he was fighting, morally, would never see the light of day and therefore go unappreciated for the struggle they imposed on him. He was, in a word, depressed about his work, and drank frequently to keep the nagging doubts away so he could focus on the task at hand.
It was my most important assignment as a Stamp Collector, and I took an interests in his struggle. After opening up my letter, I did something I never thought I’d do: I got involved with the subject of my study. Humans were interesting to me. It’s why I got into this business. Sure, sometimes you read something that makes you wonder whether you ever had faith in humanity. Like the billionaires who start charity auctions using other people’s money. Or the CEO who decides to break the internet with an online purchase that he touts around like average people wield a dollar bill. But to me, ordinary people are fascinating. I often find in my “studies,” there is little ordinary about humans, the deeper you go.
So I wrote back to Herbert. He set the letter on the kitchen counter, and while he was away, I wrote what good work I thought he was doing, and that he wasn’t at fault for the various assassinations, and deaths that came as a result of the mission he was working on. As an analyst he was in charge of knowing as much about the enemy as was possible to find. He’d devoted his entire educational career to the task, receiving a doctorate in foreign affairs that he was using in employ at the CIA to pay off his student debts. He wasn’t a fanatic at all, and though he harbored some feelings of love of country, his motives were purely financial. Not in any way that would have held him back from this employment. He didn’t gamble, he had good credit (Aside from the student loans). He was always on time with his bills, and just recently paid of his car. He had really joined for the chance at satisfying these debts as best he could, while doing work that was meaningful and that did really affect lives. But he was finding that they affected lives in an increasingly negative way.
He was perplexed by my letter, which is normal. I have no return address, so the letter always arrives blank. Usually that ensures no one reads my stuff. I’ve had more than a little fun with the idea in the past. Just never in a meaningful way. Like that time I wrote an instruction manual on how to build a life-sized model of Elvis. Or the Christmas this one individual was so worried about coming up with the money for presents that I sent them a check for fifteen million dollars, but with “VOID” written on the back. If you ever wonder what happens to your unread mail, you’re missing one hell of a good time.
Where was I? Oh yes, so I wrote to Herbert the following letter:
You may not know me, but I know about you, and the important work you’re doing for an unnamed three-letter agency. Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me, as are millions of other people’s secrets. I know a lot. I was hoping we could help each other out. I’m currently unemployed after being fired by a dick of a boss who wanted to downsize. What’s my business you may wonder? I’m in the same business you are. Let’s be pen pals.
P.S. If you’re wondering who to write back to, save this letter and the envelope it came in. Don’t throw it out. Write your letter on the back of this one, and place it in the envelope when you want to send it. Then leave it on your dresser, and check it in the morning. You’ll have a response in less than twenty-four hours.”
If I’m honest, I was a little nervous after writing to Herbert. Like I said I’ve never interacted with a study subject directly, only the Northern dictator. So I was both excited and nervous to see what his response would be. I thought I came off sincerely enough. Plus I literally signed it so, so hopefully he didn’t get bait-shy and just deep-six the letter.
The next morning, when I checked my mail, Herbert’s was the first one I opened. There was nothing. Damn, I thought, he’d thrown it out. Well, it was worth the old college try. I had a feeling he might’ve ignored it. Crazy, most adults lose their sense of wonder when they grow up. Probably took the entire thing as a prank.
So I tried something different. I opened by mail about Herbert, and decided I would write to him about his innermost thoughts. You know, shake him up a little just to see what shakes loose. And then I thought, no, let’s really scare him. That’ll grab his attention. In my marginal musings I had thought that if I’d been born again I might make a great advertising executive. I certainly would have that mailed accounts all sinched up for sure. People would kill to read my letters.
I noticed you threw out my last letter, so I’m writing you another one. Yes I know about the letter, and why you threw it out. I also know that your wife has been having a great time replaying her plumbing when you’ve been out at work, diligently providing for her and your little family. Wanna know how I know that? Respond back, as before, on the back of this letter by midnight tonight, and I will tell you.”
I gotta say I was inordinately proud of that last one. It got his attention good, so he wrote back:
Strange, you seem to know a lot about me, so I’m want to assume you’re identity isn’t unfamiliar to me. Might you be an old college roommate playing a prank? If you are, it worked wonderfully, as I’m clearly writing back to you.”
Oops, I almost forgot. There’s another layer to my magic I should let you know. Because, you might be thinking right now, how come the Stamp Collector doesn’t just communicate directly via telepathy if he so wants? It’d eliminate a lot of confusion. That would be true, but unfortunately I am a middle man, not a telepath. I had my shot at telepathy when I got this power. But in truth, I lost it messing around too much with people’s minds. It’s an extremely weird experience being wired directly to people’s heads for any long length of time. The stamp system allowed me to be more organized with said telepathy. I could only devote the amount of time it took to read the mail, and answer the letter. Then I could move on freely to the next subject. So if the delay is cumbersome, I have little advice rather than just deal with it.
I am not a prankster…in the way you mean. My name isn’t Joe either. I’m an entity with partial telepathy called the Stamp Collector. I’ve recently been outmoded by Santa and am looking for meaningful work, and I was looking at your career and the trials you’ve had to go through, and I have to say I both pitied you and found your struggle very endearing. I’m sorry if I sound condescending. I am technically a supernatural being. If you’d like an analogue, if you scramble his name you get SATAN.
P.S. Let’s help each other.”
When Herbert received my second letter he got the point, and thought he was a bit dubious as the my identity, he knew that I had secret knowledge that only he was privy to. If he was a good intelligence officer his first thought should have been to inform his security officer that a complete stranger had intimate knowledge of some compromising information that could lead to him being blackmailed. But it wasn’t his first thought. His first one was, “how did he know my wife was cheating?” It’s not likely the security officer would have believed him if he did tell anyways. Being blackmailed by a supernatural being. Hah! I would actually have loved to see him do that. But he was smarter, he kept it to himself. And more, he decided he would leverage this random alliance in his favor.
So you’re a supernatural being? Am I to believe you worked for SANTA, and you’re now out of a very niche job that you’ve been doing for millennia? That sounds like a pickle for sure. I can’t imagine what kind of employer the Big Man is, but it sounds like he gave you the shaft pretty directly. So this is what I propose. We’ll help each other. You write to me everyday what my wife is going, and in return I let you in to some of the work I’m doing at the moment.
P.S. I’ve noticed I been getting a rash every time I’ve heard back from you. Are there symptoms associated with you reading people’s minds? If so you seem to be concentrating a good amount on me, which I’m not sure if I feel flattered or threatened by that fact. But, just for my epidermal comfort, might you write back to me every other day instead? Just as a courtesy.”
I was elated. And I eased up on the mind-reading for him. I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity. I would be unofficially working for the CIA.
But there was one problem with that arrangement. I should first explain how hard it is to actually read someone else’s mind. The mind is like an onion. Each layer has it’s own logic and defenses. The first layer is pretty easy. That’s the get-to-know-you game stuff: where you live, what you do, how you like your eggs, what jokes you laugh at, etc. It’s the common layer, the one that needs to remain fairly flexible to allow outside information to be processed in social situations. But not everyone is as social as me, if you could call my work social. It’s more antisocial I suppose. But Herbert was an introvert, which means his first layer was fairly closed off to begin with. He didn’t much care for information that would exist on that surface level. He was a deep thinker and kept only a certain amount of grey matter available for socialization. So, cracking his first layer was hard enough.
But they there are the deeper layers. Those’re the ones everyone has that have the hardest defenses to break, and some are never broken at all. Those items include your fears, your insecurities, your traumas, your loves, your injuries, and your secrets. Something I noticed throughout the passage of time is that millennials are the easier to crack. Hell, most of them have all this information already on the internet for everyone and their mother to see. They have no layers but are more like topsoil where no artifacts exist. The older generation though has much higher defenses for telepathic cracking. Their secrets take much more time, use many techniques, and have to earn a lot of trust to break them. Herbert was like that, because as I tried to read his mind, I couldn’t get to the secrets he had to keep for work.
But I wasn’t about to let him know that, not after all that time spent telling him how I’m a supernatural being with a special power of reading people’s minds. My reputation would be destroyed immediately if that happened, and I especially had to keep face now that I was a free agent looking for a next assignment. What if he told his colleagues that this pathetic god had contacted him and couldn’t even do the things he professed to do. You know what happens then? You become the laughingstock of the universe, and I already didn’t have Santa’s recommendation.
So I wrote him back two days later:
Sounds like a deal. But rather than let me into your job’s secrets, since I’m sure that’d make you uncomfortable and put you in a conflicting position morally ,why don’t you just write down the names of the people you work with, and I’ll do the rest. That way you won’t have to be involved.”
That sounded pretty good. Least I thought so until he replied with the following.
Sure, not a problem. Though you probably like to know, Santa, or Kris Kringle is one of our agents. Has been for at least a hundred years. He’s been an invaluable asset throughout his tenure at the north pole. We’ve leaned on him countless times to provide us with invaluable information about enemies to the state, and threats to national security. And before you ask, his knowledge doesn’t just extend to adolescents. His information on adults was critical in a recent operation that removed a prominent terrorist from the Earth, and helped make the Middle East a safer place. If you’re wondering how a non-Christian region is the subject of Kringle’s invisible hand, there isn’t a land where his reach is barred from extending. There are plenty of Christians in the ME that still worship him. But you’d know better than I. It’s your work he used.
Sorry if this comes as a revelation. I don’t mean to upset you. But you may find you know him less well than you thought.
I was floored. Santa? A CIA operative? And me his unwitting fool, gathering all the intel he ever wanted on everybody? I couldn’t stand the thought, but it wouldn’t leave me. It grew in it’s sickening growth in my stomach, spreading like a cancer. I felt betrayed before, when he decided to part ways with my work. But using me? I didn’t sign up for that. I thought I was doing the right thing to bring millions of people joy and happiness every Christmas. But you know, if I’m being honest, maybe that’s making excuses for myself. I could’ve figured it out had I had my eyes open enough, and read enough mail. I’ve been around for over a millennium, but I felt like I was born yesterday. Nothing could have prepared me for that bombshell revelation, and nothing would prepare me for what I had to do next.
The next morning, I sent Herbert my final message. I told him I was leaving the business of collection people’s secrets. That my forced retirement had become a planned one, and that I was going to travel the world, see all the people I never got to meet, but knew so much about. Sure there’s going to be awkward moments from time to time, when you know everyone’s secrets. But I want to experience humanity in its fullness and life, and figure out what people work so hard every year for? Why do people travel great distances to see family they’re only semi-comfortable to see, and spend billions upon billions in gifts for those families? I may have started this year on a bad note, but I promise you, by the end of it, I’m going to find out the true meaning of Christmas, one note at a time.
If things were going to change, it had to start with me.
The Stamp Collector.