A variant of the Batman Gambit which is usually played for comedy. Alice tells Bob that she will "get him". Bob freaks out and goes to great lengths to avoid falling victim to her plans. In the end, it turns out that Alice wasn't going to do anything to him and that her whole plan was to just sit back and let his paranoia make him do stupid things to himself. Another variation commonly occurs where the gambit is not intentional, and Alice admits that she actually was going to do something to him, but everything Bob did to himself was much better than what she had planned.
This is usually a case of Restrained Revenge, although it can also be a practical joke with no prior provocation. May overlap with Self Fulfilling Prophecy when paranoia of a specific event causes said event to occur.
Compare Confound Them With Kindness, where Alice acts nicely towards Bob after the fact to confuse him.
See also Kansas City Shuffle, which involves making the target suspect something and try to counteract that, then doing something else that needed them to do what they just did.
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Guu in Haré+Guu regularly uses this tactic to torment Haré; having established how far she is willing to go, including distorting reality, to mess with him, she can often get the same result by doing absolutely nothing, allowing Haré to drive himself crazy wondering what she might do.
Liar Game: Akiyama kept 24 hour surveillance on Nao's opponent to mess up his judgements. He did absolutely nothing else to the man until an hour before collection time...
Code Geass' first season has Lelouch pull off one against Jeremiah. "Also, Orange". Specifically, he spoke what appeared to be a codeword to an enemy combatant on live TV, and then used Mind Control to make him release him; it doesn't mean anything but the Britannians don't know that and, since they don't know about the mind control, devote precious counter-intelligence resources to finding it out. The fact that Jeremiah got demoted for unwillingly helping Lelouch escape due to the latter's Compelling Voice (again, the Britannians don't know about that so they thought it was from blackmail related to the "codeword") was just a nice bonus.
This is L's tactic in Death Note, to apply the pressure of Paranoia Fuel and watch for a Revealing Coverup. It does work, but not as successfully as he'd hoped; he counts the small victories until he has to concede defeat.
World of Archie Digest #1, Betty does this to Veronica.
Subverted in a Batman story, in which a criminal becomes convinced that his new next-door neighbor is a disguised Batman trying to pull one of these him. Eventually, the guy snaps and attacks his neighbor... whereupon the real Batman shows up.
The Grendel series used a similar subversion, following a criminal and snitch's descent into paranoid madness, for fear that the original Grendel is stalking him. Grendel does show up at the end, but only because something completely unrelated reminded him of the (very petty) snitch.
In Marv Wolfman's DuckTales comic story "Scrooge's Quest", after Flintheart Glomgold buys out all of Scrooge's businesses and takes over Duckburg, Scrooge pulls this on Glomgold in the final chapter, "All That Glitters is Not Glomgold". By the end of the story, Glomgold is driven so far up the wall thinking Scrooge is out to sabotage him, that he decides victory isn't all it's cracked up to be and willingly tears up his ownership contract of the city.
The first issue of the Roger Rabbit comic book had him becoming paranoid about his new weasel neighbor. Naturally, the weasel is harmless and just wants to be left alone.
One Heavy Metal story involved the protagonists tricking the villain into giving up critical information by placing him in a realistic simulation where he thought he'd won. When they reveal this to him, he's informed he'll be left trapped in a hyper-realistic simulation for the rest of his life. As they leave, one of the protagonists reveals to the other that all she did was tell him he was trapped in a simulation.
In Batman: The Dark Knight Annual #1, Batman ensures a peaceful Halloween by inviting the Penguin, the Scarecrow and the Mad Hatter to the abandoned Arkham Home for Youth. Each has received a note, seemingly from the others, inviting him to meet at Arkham for a some sort of lucrative business. Immediately, they suspect Batman is setting up an ambush, and thus become paranoid. Through the course of the story, the three villains manage to freak out, agitate, gas, and in the end scare the daylights out of one another. The comic ends with the discovery that Bruce Wayne sent the notes, knowing that the three villains would play to each others’ worst fears and stay occupied throughout the night, thus guaranteeing Bruce, and Batman, a restful Halloween.
In Oh God Not Again, Sirius mentions his plans to do this. "It's going to take every ounce of my considerable self-control, but I want to wait until [Snape's] so paranoid he can't sleep before I start in on him."
In A Prank Too Many, a Transformers fic, Sideswipe spends a week playing various pranks on Tracks. Tracks retaliates with two words "My turn" and this trope.
In The Tall Blond With One Black Shoe, the head of the French secret service pulls one of these on his Starscream number two, by convincing him that a completely random stranger, the titular blond, is in fact a top agent who will 'deal with him'. This causes the number two to get increasingly paranoid, and eventually results in him dying.
Non-Stop: The bad guy frames Marks as the hijacker and counts on him unwittingly acting like he is hijacking the plane because he wants to expose the incompetence of the air marshals and American security in general. It works better than expected when the passengers turn on him.
Only once, in the entire history of witchery on the Ramtops, had a thief broken into a witch's cottage. The witch concerned visited the most terrible punishment on him. She did nothing, although sometimes when she saw him in the village she'd smile in a faint, puzzled way. After three weeks of this the suspense was too much for him and he took his own life; in fact he took it all the way across the continent, where he became a reformed character and never went home again.
Also from Discworld, the short story The Sea and Little Fishes. Granny Weatherwax does this to the entire Witch community merely by smiling and offering to help kindly.
This is how Dora defeats Albin in book four of Dora Wilk Series: she changes his kill charm formula by adding runes "mirror reflection" and "powering up" (thus making the charm Albin makes return to him stronger) and then suggests that she added charm elixir to his drink. She didn't, but being a vampire, Albin thinks she did, so if Albin ever tries throwing this charm again, it will kill him instead.
In the introduction of the Raymond Smullyan logic puzzle book What Is The Name Of This Book?, the author talks about an incident in his childhood when his sister promised him she would "get him good" one April Fools Day. After a paranoia-filled day Smullyan proudly announced that April 1st was over and she hadn't got him once. She retorted that fooling him into fearing a non-existent prank was the prank.
One of the characters in Diana Wynne Jones's Dark Lord of Derkholm performs one of these on himself, though not intentionally. He just knows that his sister, Shona, is mad at him for letting their mother put a spell on her, and he remembers very clearly the way she waited patiently for days to take revenge on one of their siblings when she was younger. He never stops to think that maybe she's matured since then, and all this distracts him from fulfilling his mission, which was tough enough already.
In the Isaac Asimov story The Acquisitive Chuckle, a rich collector's business partnership goes bad, and as the partner leaves, he snaps his suitcase shut in a suspicious manner and chuckles "acquisitively". The collector freaks out and his life goes downhill as he frantically searches through everything he owns to try to find out what valuable item his partner stole from him. Years later, his lawyer confronts the thief and asks him what he took. His answer? "Only his peace of mind, sir."
In a rather more serious example, a woman in an Agatha Christie short story discovers her husband intends to murder her once she signs an important document - a will or insurance thing or some such. She makes coffee, and insists on telling him something before she signs this document. She then tells him a completely invented story about two previous husbands that she poisoned in their coffee. He assumes she has poisoned him, freaks out and dies; but there was nothing in his coffee.
A related short story (can't remember the title just now), has a book critic happen upon a woman whose book he criticized, but is unaware of that fact. She makes him a mushroom omelet, and while he is eating she mentions that she is an amateur mushroom hunter, and that she'd picked those herself. He panics, goes to the emergency room, and has his stomach pumped, only to find that they were perfectly ordinary mushrooms, and she has never picked them at all. The kicker: he had criticized her book for its inability to make the story seem real.
The Doctor Who Expanded Universe novel The Doctor Trap. There's a lot of I Know You Know I Know about the titular trap the Doctor has supposedly set for the villain, but what it boils down to is that as long as the villain believes there's a Doctor Trap, the Doctor has the upper hand.
In Tangled Webs a drow said that they have a proverb "Revenge is Best Served Cold"... and the second meaning is that knowing there's a scheming vengeful bastard out to get even have the target sweating before the actual revenge is done. As a bonus.
Zhuge Liang's Empty Fortress Strategy in Romance of the Three Kingdoms was one of these mixed with Refuge in Audacity. In a bad position with a massively superior army headed his way, Zhuge Liang sent most of his troops away and had the rest disguise themselves, leaving the fort almost completely defenseless. Then he proceeded to go up on the wall and calmly play the zither, ignoring the approaching army. Upon seeing this, Zhuge Liang's arch-rival Sima Yi immediately expected a trap, since he knew Zhuge Liang to be a man who took very few risks and was prone to feigning weakness to bait an ambush. Ignoring the advice of his son, Sima Yi abandoned direct assault to try and get around the obvious trap before him...and wound up marching his army into Zhuge Liang's actual trap.
Holes: After Stanley has learned to no longer expect water from the vengeful Mr. Sir, Mr. Sir surprises him by refilling his canteen that day. But then he takes it to his car and gives it back a minute later, still full. Then he waits for Stanley to drink from it. When he's so thirsty he can no longer bear it, Stanley pours the entire contents of the canteen, refusing to drink from it thanks to his suspicion.
In Plato's Apology of Socrates, Socrates' friend Chaerephon asks the Oracle of Delphi if there is any man wiser than Socrates. The Oracle is famous for her convoluted and ambiguous replies, but that time she answers a straight "No." Socrates, being who he is, is convinced it is some kind of sophisticated twist and spends much time and energy trying to understand it.
Megan does this in an episode of Drake & Josh. It works hilariously. At the end of the episode, she does something to Drake and Josh anyway. That's just her doing things to them for the hell of it again, just like she always does. It's that type of behavior that made the gambit work in the first place (she actually told them she wasn't going to do anything and let her past actions speak for themselves.) Drake and Josh even lampshade the fact.
Drake: Well, she got us...
Josh: ...by not getting us.
Mash Season 11 episode "The Joker Is Wild". BJ Hunnicutt bets Hawkeye he can play a practical joke on each of the main characters. As the other characters fall victim to pranks one at a time, Hawkeye becomes increasingly worried about when he is going to get his, ending up camping outside in his bed, surrounded by barbed wire. At the end Hawkeye learns that BJ didn't actually play any practical jokes on the others, they were all faked. Making Hawkeye paranoid was the practical joke, the bet only being a tool and losing it part of the plan.
In an episode of Night Court, Harry got into a competition with a younger judge who seemed to be just as much a prankster as he was, betting who could pull the best practical joke on the other. The younger judge warned that he'd pull his joke before Harry's session ended, and everyone was paranoid, and it seemed like this was the Trope. When Harry made his ruling on the last case of the night, and still nothing from the guy, he figured he was safe, and rapped his gavel to adjourn the court - causing his bench to fall apart. It seemed the other guy had won, and Harry conceded defeat... But unbeknownst to anyone, Harry was actually playing a realBatman Gambit which took everyone, especially his rival, by shock when he pulled one of the most spectacular pranks even five minutes later.
Harry: You may be younger, faster, maybe even smarter. But you will never be crazier than me.
Played for all its worth in the episode "Slapsgiving". In a previous episode ("Slap Bet"), Marshall has been allotted five slaps that he can give to Barney. He has chosen to give the third slap at Thanksgiving, going so far as to post a countdown online. The anticipation starts to get to Barney, and Marshall's tactics to psych him out don't help any. Tired of the whole thing, Lily (as "slap bet commissioner") calls it off so that they could have a pleasant Thanksgiving dinner. But Barney's gloating as the countdown approaches get to her, and at the last moment she lets Marshall slap him just to shut him up.
Turned Up to Eleven in "Slapsgiving 2: Revenge of the Slap". In honor of Thanksgiving, Marshall gives his fourth slap to Ted and Robin, who spend most of the episode arguing about who gets it. It ends with the rights to the slap being passed all around the room, (with each preparing to take the slap before passing it off to someone else, much to Barney's increased torture) until Marshall, saying that the togetherness it's caused is what he wanted, calls the slap off. Then he slaps Barney anyway.
Mr. Wick tries this once on The Drew Carey Show, but fails miserably. After Drew punches Mr. Wick in the face, they agree that Wick should be allowed to punch Drew as well. Wick tries playing up the paranoia angle, saying Drew will never know where or when the punch is coming, but Drew just ignores the taunts and goes on with his life. When Mr. Wick finally does punch him, Drew is barely even fazed, while Wick's fist is severely hurt.
In The Prisoner, Number Six does this to a cruel Number Two in the episode "Hammer Into Anvil". Specifically, Six acts as if he was planted by Two's superiors and is sending them cryptic messages questioning his loyalty; Two not only tears his hair out trying to follow the trail, but pushes away one colleague after another as untrustworthy. At the end, when Six points out that a loyal man would have left it alone:
He also comes up with a nasty inversion for "Sunny" Dey; while trapping the rest of the interns in the elevator, he tells her that she's "too weak" for him to take revenge on. She spends the entire day trying to get him to do something nasty to her, until she finally confronts him and says she isn't weak. He replies that she isn't; that's why he came up with a special torture for her.
DJ does this to Stephanie in an episode of Full House as punishment for listening in on her phone calls.
In one Cheers episode, Diane tricks the bar folk, then becomes increasingly paranoid that they're plotting revenge. When she's asked to read her poetry for a TV show, she thinks it's a ruse, and humiliates herself by clucking like a chicken on television. Turns out all the gang intended to do was dump a bucket of water on her.
In another episode, the Cheers gang pulls a prank on rival bar Gary's, and the paranoia becomes so intense they shave their own heads on the idea that this will prevent retribution. Turns out Gary was out of town and didn't even know about the prank.
Done to Jerry on Seinfeld by a pissed-off girlfriend who, in response to his accidentally knocking her toothbrush in the toilet and not telling her for several days, proceeded to put something of his in the toilet when he wasn't looking. Jerry, a neat-freak, proceeds to start throwing out random things in his apartment, until she finally reveals it was his toilet brush.
Sinclair pulls one on G'kar, after the latter's actions result in a threat to the station's safety.
Garibaldi: I wonder if they'll ever find that transmitter you slipped in G'kar's drink. Sinclair: No they won't. Because there is none. If I had put one in, sooner or later, they would have found it. This way, they'll keep looking. Garibaldi: Are you aware of the tests they'll perform and the things they'll do to him? Sinclair: Yes. Come on. Garibaldi: There are some days I love this job.
Lord Refa: Why should I do as you say? Londo Mollari: Because I have asked you; because your sense of duty to our people should override any personal ambition; and because I have poisoned your drink.
To elaborate: the poison Londo claims to have used is one-half of a binary poison, which remains latent in the body. That means that he has Lord Refa on a leash indefinitely, for fear of being dosed with the second component of the poison if he ever defies Londo in the future. The final irony is that Londo eventually does have Refa murdered, but not by poisoning.
Doctor Who: The Doctor tells a random person whose only job was translating "Don't you think she looks tired?", while Harriet Jones stands by without her being able to hear. When she inquires she seems paranoid, and even if the translator tells her, she wouldn't believe it, keeping inquiring and getting more and more paranoid.
Ben uses this to wonderfully creepy effect in the LOST episode "The Whole Truth"
Ben: Wow, you guys have some real trust issues, don't you? Guess it makes sense she didn't tell you, what with you two fighting all the time. Of course, if I was one of them - these people you seem to think are your enemies - what would I do? Well, there'd be no balloon, so I'd draw a map to a real secluded place like a cave or some underbrush - good place for a trap - an ambush. And when your friends got there, a bunch of my people would be waiting for them. Then they'd use them to trade for me. I guess it's a good thing I'm not one of them, huh? You guys got any milk?
In The Office, Dwight ambushes Jim by hiding inside a snowman. Later that day, when Jim is walking to his car, he finds himself surrounded by snowmen. As Jim snaps and starts destroying every one of them, Dwight watches from the roof. "The greatest snowball is fear. Merry Christmas."
Used in an episode of NCIS as retaliation for black ink on the binocular eyepieces. Ziva's increasing paranoia over what Tony will do for revenge leads her to do such things as throw away her lunch when she finds out he picked up the order. The payoff comes when Tony does get her just before the credits by rigging her desk chair to collapse.
The Trope Codifier in TV may be the episode "The Impractical Joke" of The Dick Van Dyke Show. After Buddy gets a friend to play a practical joke on Rob, Rob decides that the best revenge is to make Buddy increasingly paranoid about what Rob's revenge will be.
Played with and eventually subverted during a April Fools episode of Married... with Children. Al Bundy plays a prank on Jefferson Darcy. Darcy promises to get revenge. During the entire episode, Al Bundy becomes paranoid about what Jefferson has planned. Eventually, he guesses what it is, only for Jefferson to say he's wrong and reveal his true revenge prank which completely catches Al off-guard.
The above comic strip is from a FoxTrot story when Peter accidentally destroyed Jason's rocket, causing the latter to proclaim that he will have his vengeance in the next 12 hours. This led to Peter, among other things jumping out of his room window after hearing a knock on the door, hiding all the knives in the house inside the toilet tank, destroyed his mom's rose bush by hiding in it then hiding under the couch dirtying the house (all of the aforementioned actions causing him to be grounded), eating leaves for dinner and lying on dog poop for several hours. Just as Jason planned.
Another strip had Paige getting ready to eat a sandwich only to find Peter staring at her with an evil grin. She proceeds to bombard Peter with questions about why he's smiling and if he did something to her sandwich (specifically spitting on it) only for him to constantly shoot her down. Paige then dares him to eat the sandwich...
Peter: [Thinking while eating the sandwich] Works every time.
Jason: [Grinning] Don't you want to eat my sandwich?
All three Fox siblings have fallen for this at some point. Another strip has Jason hiding in the garbage after playing some prank on Paige. Peter and Paige then talk about how they love it when their little brother punishes himself.
You Don't Know Jack, starting in volume 3, has a category known as Impossible Questions, mind-bendingly difficult questions which are worth a game-breaking $20,000 to whoever can get one right (or a game-breaking loss of $20,000 for whoever gets one wrong.) One of the Impossible Questions is from a category called "It's a Dog!" The question is "What has four legs, barks, and is a common household pet?" Awkward silence from the contestants. (The answer really is "a dog.")
In Freefall, Sam Starfall's reputation for pulling these off is so well-known that it works even when he doesn't actually have a plan.
Miho does this to Largo in Megatokyo, just to mess with him. She tells him she left a present for him in his apartment, which he naturally assumes could be anything up to and including a bomb. She later admits to Piro that she didn't really get a present for Largo, but she hopes he enjoyed it nevertheless.
Interestingly, Miho may have done him a favor, since Largo's heightened paranoia allowed him to intercept one of Erika's crazier fanboys before he could reach her. Whether Miho planned this or even realized it after the fact is never explained.
In Misfile, Ash's plan for Heather to beat a rival driver is to act like s/he just gave her a plan.
In Unreal Estate, Kisei does this to the man who had her father killed, promising to come back and kill him on a Wednesday. "Maybe next week, maybe 20 years from now." She has no intention of coming back.
After Roy of U.S. Acres (on Garfield and Friends) plays a practical joke on Orson, Orson uses this as a revenge. Lanolin actually does play a joke on him using a disguise that makes her look like Orson in a Paper-Thin Disguise.
An episode of The Angry Beavers does this: Norbert spends the majority of the episode telling Dagget "gonna get ya".
And then he subverts it at the end by punishing him anyway.
On American Dad!, Klaus swears revenge on Steve and Roger after they pull a prank on him, and they spend most of the episode going insane from anticipation. Subverted when Klaus forgets all about it, but now that they reminded him, he gets set to exact his revenge. Steve and Roger stop him by blocking his fishbowl.
In Family Guy, Stewie once offered Brian a free shot at him after a particularly brutal beating over some money Brian owed him after a bet. Brian says he's not going to tell him when it's going to happen. Stewie goes nuts to the point of beating himself to try to even it out. It's then subverted in the last scene of the episode where Brian kicks Stewie into the path of a bus.
In Justice League Unlimited, Superman's suspicions about Lex Luthor and his growing public approval rating left him open for Luthor to trap him with this. Luthor had a self-sustaining city built for the homeless, and Superman detected a device with a timer underground, ignoring Captain Marvel's pleas to resolve the issue peacefully in favour of charging down to destroy it. As it turned out, the device was a generator, which, though powered by kryptonite, was legit. Superman had levelled the city by this point, however, and had just fought Captain Marvel over the incident, leaving his own reputation in tatters and resulting in Captain Marvel resigning from the Justice League. Had Supes left well enough alone, all Luthor would have gained was the extra PR from his charity.
Another more minor example occurs between Hawkgirl and Vixen, both rivals for Green Lantern John Stewart's affections (though Vixen was his girlfriend at the time, while Hawkgirl was his ex). Hawkgirl laments the fact that she cannot resolve this rivalry as she could have done back home on planet Thanagar, like by, for instance, poisoning Vixen's water. A little later on, Hawkgirl throws Vixen a bottle of water as the latter leaves the room, who, recalling what the former had said, warily bins the bottle.
A variant in The Spectacular Spider-Man: Eddie Brock returns to town without telling anyone, and messes with Peter's head by following him around and letting Peter get occasional glimpses of him, eventually even making a suit that makes him look like Venom at a distance. The purpose is to get Peter to check on where he left the Venom symbiote, leading Eddie to it in the process.
Candace of Phineas and Ferb pulls this on herself in "The Best Lazy Day Ever", when her brothers decide to spend the day relaxing in the sunshine. Without one of their insanely ambitious schemes to expose to their mother she doesn't know what to do, working herself up to encouraging them to take on a project and finally doing it herself. Phineas and Ferb remain idle under their tree the whole time.
Despite this being 2/3 of Batman's M.O., one episode of the animated series features the Riddler pulling an epic one.. Sort of. His origin episode revolves around him going after Mockridge, the man who cheated him out of the profits for a game he designed due to him being 'work-for-hire'. Batman and Robin manage to save him, but the Riddler gets away and hints he will eventually return to finish the job. The episode ends with a terrified Mockridge in his mansion, locking every door and window in the place, checking every shadow, and getting into bed with a loaded shotgun at his side while Bruce muses on the situation:
In the episode "Joker's Millions", Joker inherits a fortune and uses it to buy his freedom, then spends a montage living it up as a richman. When asked by Penguin what his scheme is, Joker remarks that he has none; The knowledge that the Bat-family can't touch him and that it's upsetting Batman is good enough.
Twilight Sparkle accidentally does this to herself in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "It's About Time": At the start of the episode, she's visited by her future self, who appears to be wounded and tries to warn her of an impending disaster, but the time travel spell ends before she can say what the disaster is. Twilight Sparkle spends most of the episode trying to prevent the disaster from happening, but she gets the same injuries as future Twilight, proving she didn't change the future. At the end, it is revealed that there was nothing to worry about, so Twilight sneaks into Canterlot castle to steal a time travel spell and tell her past self to not worry, but she is interrupted before she can, creating a Stable Time Loop.
Slappy Squirrel in the Animaniacs episode "I got your can" pulls one off on Candie Chipmunk, after having subjected her to some well-deserved revenge. And then it stopped. Queue the Paranoia Gambit.
If you're a guy and you have friends who are guys, never leave a beverage behind in a room with them. Either they will put some foul substance in said beverage and you will drink it, or they will pull one of these on you and you'll end up pouring the beverage down the toilet.
Some terrorist groups sometimes report the bombs they planted - in vague terms. Evacuation of a large public place and related panic (especially if the threat turned out to be real) causes plenty of terror, even without killing civilians.
Bomb threats in general do this. It's a way to cause financial loss to a company without all that mucking about with explosives. Due to paranoia (especially now in the OMG TERRORISTS! days) nearly everyplace will respond, even though, if they're getting a warning, there's a virtually nil chance that there's an actual explosive device (and vice versa).
That last bit may be true in the days of al-Qaeda, but in the past many terrorist groups (such as the IRA) would give advance warnings if they were going to bomb a civilian area. Killing civilians is bad PR. Disrupting business and operations by forcing them to evacuate is still quite effective.
And if you are a right bastard, you can do this enough times with fake threats to invoke Crying Wolf, and then hit them with a real bomb.
Spork: So today in the school's parking lot, this big truck was triple parked. So, not being mean enough to actually scratch his truck, I wrote a note that said "Sorry about the scratch" and left it under his wiper. As I was pulling out, he got to his car, looked at the note, and spent like 10 minutes looking for a scratch.
The concept of the Panopticon is this. It is a prison built in such a way to allow guards to observe everyone 24/7. But the prisoners will become so paranoid of being watched they behave with little watching actually required.
In a lighthearted example, George Clooney (who has a reputation for pulling pranks on his co-stars) once did this to Brad Pitt. During the filming of Ocean's Twelve, a production staff member managed to get a key to Pitt's house and offered it to Clooney; this was after he had pranked Pitt several times during Ocean's Eleven. Clooney told the staff member to just tell Pitt that he had given the key to him. Pitt spent hours every night going through his house to see if Clooney had snuck in and done something.