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I, Spy

A crash course in espionage gives would-be James Bonds a leg up in the business world

Author Christina Couch Illustration Peter Oumanski

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NEW YORK – “They call me Bulldozer,” a large, athletic guy says with a nod, “because one way or another, I get things done.” By day, the man they call Bulldozer is a financial advisor. But soon he’ll be on the floor, begging a Russian ex–special forces soldier to let him go.

Welcome to the MI6 Academy, which offers day- and weekend-long espionage classes to mostly middle-manager types looking to boost their leadership skills by learning such real-world battlefield tactics as evasive driving and samurai sword fighting. Today, a dozen or so MI6 students sit in a circle in a rehearsal studio above the Snapple Theater on Broadway, revealing their super-secret undercover names. “Dr. Yes,” says one besuited businessman. “Carlos Danger,” announces another.

To start things off, an instructor named Shane shows the would-be agents how to weave a toilet paper rope strong enough to lower a person from a window, before explaining how to unearth food sources after the apocalypse. “You can make dandelion wine out there,” he says. “Believe me, Armageddon doesn’t have to be so bad.”

Scarier than the doomsday scenarios, perhaps, are the three Russian military types who lead the hand-to-hand combat class, in which they use plastic knives to demonstrate how to stab an enemy 15 times in 30 seconds.

The academy was started four years ago by New Yorker Alana Winter, who previously ran a video distribution business. She’d been fascinated by espionage as a kid, she says, but that interest took a turn into reality when she uncovered an embezzlement scheme in her company. Her response: “OK, I’ve been hit. What are my targets to focus on, and where can I hit back?”

Today, Winter employs veterans of various military and security agencies. “None of my instructors are people that you find in the Yellow Pages,” she says.

Following a session on lie detection (be wary of those who rub their necks while talking), the students resume their places in the circle. “It makes you look at people differently,” says one guy. His fellow agents-in-training nod, then spend a few moments in silence, looking at each other.

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