February 26, 2023

With a Face Like That

7

I get to the office at 7:30. No one else is ever here this early, so I’m surprised to see someone sitting at the new guy’s desk. Only it isn’t the new guy. It’s someone else.

“Who are you,” I ask the guy.

“You talking to me,” he says like he’s imitating Al Pacino in that movie. Or was that Robert DeNiro?

“Ya, you,” I say. “Who else would I be talking to?”

We both look around and back at one another. There is no other person around.

“I’m Steve, remember,” he says. “The new guy.”

“No you’re not,” I say.

“I’m not?” he says like I was unclear. But I can see from his eyes that he knows he’s not Steve.

He has shifty eyes. I don’t think Steve had shifty eyes. Maybe he did. Honestly, I don’t remember. What I do remember is that Steve, the new guy, wears glasses. I know this because I remember spending a lot of time yesterday during the interview looking at those glasses and wondering how it was that a good-looking guy like Steve could end up wearing such an ugly pair of glasses. This guy isn’t wearing glasses.

I stare at this guy with his shifty eyes and wonder who he is. He sees me wondering.

“Is this a joke,” he says. “Haze the new guy or something?”

He looks around like he’s expecting a stripper to jump out of a cake. Like all new employees are greeted on their first day with some kind of gag. But at this hour, it’s only me and him here. I have no idea what this guy is on about, but I am more convinced than ever that he isn’t Steve. He isn’t the new guy.

“I should be asking you the same thing,” I say. “What’s the gag here?”

This time his eyes remain steady on mine, but his jaw clenches.

“No gag, Mr. Swindley,” he says.

The use of my name is a nice touch, but it only makes me angry.

“Listen,” I say. “I know who I am. I wanna know who the fuck you are?”

My anger doesn’t seem to phase him though he does his best to look baffled. I take a step forward into his personal space, I’m close enough to feel his breath on my face. He takes a small step back. He doesn’t want trouble. Too late for that.

“Mr. Swindley,” he says. “I’m Steve, sir. You hired me yesterday remember?”

He’s good, I’ll give him that. I almost believe him. Almost.

“No, you’re not,” I say.

He takes another step back, uncertainty playing on his face. He looks worried. I’m already having a day, and I don’t have time for whatever game this guy is playing.

“Mike?” Judy says beside me. She pulls on my sleeve, forcing me to step back. “What’s going on?”

Judy is my business partner.

“I dunno,” I say, not taking my eyes off the guy who isn’t Steve. “This guy says he’s Steve. Only I know—“

“Sure,” she says, extending her hand to the guy. “Steve, good to see you again.”

He smiles and shakes her hand. He’s still got those shifty eyes. I look over at her.

“You recognize this guy?” I say to Judy.

She looks at me like I’m crazy.

“Sure,” she says. “We hired him yesterday remember?”

“We hired Steve yesterday,” I say.

“Right,” she says, nodding but not understanding.

“But this guy isn’t Steve?” I say.

She shoots me a quizzical look. “He isn’t,” she says. She turns her attention back to the guy. Gives him a quick up and down with her eyes. “Looks like Steve to me. Aren’t you Steve?”

He smiles. He figures he has her fooled.

“Yes, of course,” he says. “I’m Steve.”

Judy looks back at me, frowns and raises an eyebrow.

“You’ll have to excuse Mike,” she says, looking at me with disappointment like I’m a puppy that’s just shit on her rug. “We are all under a lot of pressure…”

“No problem, Ms. Cooper. I completely understand. I’m glad to be here and ready to help.”

I shake my head. He may have her fooled, but I’m not convinced. This guy isn’t Steve. Steve wasn’t shifty like this guy. Steve wore glasses. This guy is for sure not Steve. But before I can say anything more, Judy grabs my arm and starts leading me away.

“Come on,” she says. “Let Steve get settled.”

I try and protest, but she doesn’t let me. She shoots me a look, making it clear I need to stop. I bite my tongue. Maybe she’s right. But I doubt it. I need to think.

“Steve,” she says. “Why don’t you grab a coffee and drop by my office in ten minutes and we can get you oriented.”

“No problem, Ms. Cooper,” he says.

His voice has a hint of victory in it, and I try and turn around to confront him, but Judy holds my arm fast and keeps walking us away. After we have moved out of earshot, she stops and glares at me.

“What’re you doing,” she says.

“What,” I say. “That guy isn’t Steve.”

“Isn’t Steve? What the hell are you talking about? Who else would he be?”

“Judy,” I say. “I don’t know who that guy is. But he isn’t Steve. That’s what I was trying to sort out.”

She rolls her eyes, straightens her blazer, looks up at me, and takes a big breath.

“Why would some complete stranger turn up here for work claiming to be Steve and not be Steve?”

I shake my head. “No idea,” I say. “Maybe this guy isn’t qualified and he hired a ringer to sit the interview process for him.”

She laughs. It’s a ridiculous laugh. Why is she laughing? This isn’t funny. A stranger has infiltrated our business, and she’s laughing. She shakes her head again.

“Mike, you’re tired. And jumpy. You’re being paranoid. We agreed you were going to leave HR to me, right?”

“Yes,” I say. “I understand that. What I don’t understand is how you think this guy is the guy we spent hours interviewing yesterday.”

“He’s the same guy,” she says.

“What about the glasses,” I say.

“What glasses?”

“Exactly,” I say. “The guy we interviewed wore ugly square rimmed glasses. This guy has 20/20 vision. How do you explain that?”

She rolls her eyes again.

“Glasses,” she says. “That’s what has you rattled. For goodness sake Mike, we didn’t administer a damn eye exam…”

“But—“

“So he’s not wearing glasses today. So what? Maybe he wears contacts? Maybe he left them at home? Maybe I don’t care why Steve isn’t wearing his gosh darn glasses today. He’s here and we need all the help we can get.”

“I understand,” I say. “I do. But I have a bad feeling about this guy. And I don’t like being played.”

“Played,” she says. “I don’t think you’re being played. I think you’re tired and jumping at shadows. Maybe you should go home.”

“Not going to happen,” I say. “There’s too much work to do.”

She gives me a stern look. She isn’t happy. She hasn’t been happy for a while.

“Fine,” she says. “But please, stop scaring the new employees. We need them to stick around.”

“I’m telling you this guy isn’t—“

“Mike,” she says sharply and raises her hand for me to stop. “Don’t, alright. Promise me you’ll leave the new guy alone.”

I want to argue with her, but she’s already under so much pressure. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. But I don’t think so.

“Fine,” I say. “But if it turns out he isn’t the guy we hired, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

“Uh huh,” she says. “Like you’ve ever passed up the chance to tell everyone how bright you are.”

I laugh. “It’s my best quality,” I say.

“Uh huh,” she says.

“Alright,” I say. “I’ll leave the new guy alone. I’ve got a call.”

I turn and head for my office. Like most high-tech startups, we work in an open-concept space, with employees working in glorified half-wall cubicles spread across the floor. Judy and I are the only ones with offices, but they provide little privacy since the interior walls are all floor-to-ceiling glass. I take a seat at my desk and stare out at the cubicles. I can see the imposter sitting at Steve’s desk. He is sitting sideways to me, more or less in the middle of the room. Others are starting to turn up, and the office is becoming busy. I can see the guy shaking hands and introducing himself to everyone. Everyone else seems to accept that he is Steve, so maybe Judy is right. But probably not. If Steve had been as shifty as this guy, I think I would have picked up on it during the interviews.

I don’t have time to dwell on it, though. I have a million calls to make and a presentation to work on for tomorrow. We are looking for our next round of funding, and we’re meeting the investors tomorrow. I’m stressed and anxious and, yes, ok, maybe a bit paranoid.

Still, as the day wears on, I keep looking out at the imposter, and I become more and more convinced that he is not the guy we hired. At half past three, I am walking back into my office to find Robert, our head of IT, hovering at my door. He has a strange look on his face, and I usher him in as I take a sip of my fifteenth cup of coffee.

“Hey, you guys know that’s not Steve right,” he says as I take a seat at my desk.

“Right,” I say enthusiastically, glad to have someone in my camp. “I told Judy that earlier but she dismissed me as a raving lunatic.”

“Ya, well,” he says. “You are a lunatic, we all know that but she should have her eyes checked cause that’s not Steve.”

“Was it the glasses,.” I say.

Rob’s face clouds over in confusion, clearly not following.

“The guy I interviewed yesterday wore ugly fucking glasses and this guy seems to have 20/20 eyesight.”

“I didn’t notice that,” says Rob.

“So what?” I ask.

“This guy doesn’t know much about programming,” he says. “And this guy didn’t know who I was even though I sat in the last round of his interview yesterday. And his eyes are—“

“Shifty, right,” I say. “Fucking shifty eyes.”

“Ya,” says Rob. “I was going to say odd but shifty is more appropriate. This guy has shifty eyes.”

“So how certain are you this isn’t Steve?” I say.

“I’d say I’m 100% sure,” he says.

“Perfect,” I say. “Let me call Judy and we will fire this clown.”

“Woah,” Rob says. “Fire him? That seems a bit drastic, no?”

“Rob,” I say, “the guy’s a fucking imposter, of course we are going to fire him.”

“Is that the only choice,” he says.

“Are you serious? You want someone working here who lies about who he is?”

“Come on, Mike,” he says. “You know we’re short staffed. I could use the help. Plus, I don’t really want to do another three hours of interviews. Can’t we sleep on it? At least until after the next round of funding?”

I’m disappointed. I don’t like this imposter guy. Now that I’m certain he isn’t the man he claims to be, I don’t see how we can let him work here.

“Really,” I say.

“Ya,” he says. “I mean maybe he is Steve, you know?”

“He isn’t,” I say. “You just said you were 100% sure.”

“Ya,” he says and looks at me cautiously. “But if he isn’t, why didn’t Steve turn up today? I mean, Steve spent 3 hours being interviewed not to mention the initial screening and interview we did a few weeks ago. If this guy isn’t Steve, what’d he do, kill Steve?”

Rob tries to laugh, but it sounds more like hysteria.

“This guy didn’t kill anyone. It’s a scam is all. This guy hires someone to sit the interview and get him the job. This guy is shifty and can’t connect with people. I dunno. This guy is probably Steve and the guy we met was just some fucking actor. “

“Well,” he says. “Whatever happened, a warm body with some coding knowledge is better than an empty chair with none. I don’t like the deception but I’m not sure I care enough to raise a fuss. Let me sleep on it.”

Subscribed

I nod and say nothing. I’m less philosophical than Rob or Judy about it. This guy is a scam artist. A con man, and I hate being scammed. Rob leaves, and I stare at the imposter trying to decide what I should do.

I don’t understand why someone would go through this much trouble to get a job. It’s lunacy. I’m tempted to call Judy and fill her in about my conversation with Rob, but I don’t. She doesn’t care much for Rob and will think I put him up to it. I also know she doesn’t need the aggravation, and if Rob does decide to keep this clown on the job, there’s no sense in rocking the boat with Judy.

No, if I am going to figure out what’s happening, I’m going to have to take more aggressive action. I need to expose him for the charlatan he is so that Rob and Judy have no choice but to fire him. To do that, I need to figure out who he is.

So I do what any reasonable person would do in my situation. I make a plan to follow this guy home and to learn everything I can about him. To beat this guy, I need to know who he is, where he lives, what he eats for dinner. Everything. I’m going to turn this guy’s life inside out until I get answers. I’m going to get to the truth if it kills me. So I grab my Airbolt GPS tag off my bag and spin it in my hand while I wait for an opportunity to plant it on him. I use the tag to find my lost luggage, but no reason I can’t use it to follow this guy. Who knows, maybe I’ll find Steve.

I don’t have to wait long. When I see him grab his coffee mug and head for the kitchen, I waste no time in getting to his cubicle. I try to act casual, but this is my first time as a spy. My heart is pounding. I lean down as if to tie my shoe, dump the tag in his bag, and slowly stand back up. I quickly look around to see if anyone has noticed me, but if they have, they aren’t saying. I head back to my office. I see Judy looking at me strangely through her wall. I shrug at her as I go by. I decide I need to get my own car out of the garage, and with the tag in his bag, I should be able to pick him up on the street as soon as he exits the building.

Forty-five minutes later, I’m in my car when I see him walk out of the building. He’s got earphones in, has his head down, and is moving methodically but not briskly to the curb. I check my phone, the GPS is pinging. We are in business. There’s a car waiting for him. He jumps in the back. It’s an Uber. Wonderful. That will make it even easier to track him.

I settle in a few cars behind him, and from there, it’s a slow meandering drive across the city. I don’t know what I expected to happen, but it definitely didn’t involve a warehouse in an industrial park outside of town. Traffic is non-existent, so I have to let him move out of view or risk being spotted. I watch them turn into the industrial park, and I drive on. I get to the next intersection, cut a u-turn and head back toward the park.

It’s late now, nearly six thirty. I pull over onto the shoulder and watch the blip on my phone as the car moves through the park before stopping. Soon it is moving again. I assume that the imposter has been dropped off, so I ease out onto the road again and make the intersection with the park just as the Uber is driving out.

As I suspected, the back seat is empty. Imposter got out. GPS says he’s stationary now, so I don’t rush. This is an industrial park. Whatever this guy is up to, he hasn’t gone home. It occurs to me that maybe Rob was right, and this guy is a serial killer. Maybe he is after our intellectual property. I tell myself I’m being paranoid, but the thought this guy is evil just rattles through my brain like a pinball.

The whole park has a deserted feel to it. It’s well after dinner. The GPS says he hasn’t moved since he was dropped off. As I round the corner, I see the place. It’s a large white warehouse with a large rolling garage door bay — the kind used to allow trucks to drive inside. There is a small glass reception area, but it’s dark and empty. I pull up to the curb in front of the neighbouring building and debate what to do next. The place is a ghost town, and I’m starting to get a really bad feeling about all of this.

I’m not an indecisive guy or easily rattled, but I’m exhausted, and my paranoia is burning hot. I’m debating whether to leave when I see headlights coming down the road behind me. I lean down as far as I can in my seat and hold my breath as the car rolls by.

It pulls into the warehouse and stops. The back passenger door opens, and Steve gets out. Or maybe it is the other guy again. I can’t be certain because it is getting dark, and I only catch his face briefly in the light of the car’s interior dome light as he steps out. But it has to be Steve. My GPS says the imposter is still inside.

Steve doesn’t look around. He walks over to the glass reception area, pulls open the door, and walks through. The door is still half open when he disappears inside. That’s all the incentive I need. Whatever game these two guys are playing, I’m calling bullshit.

I get out of the car and head over to the reception area. As expected, the door is unlocked. I’m worried there may be some kind of chime or other alert, but I don’t hear anything as I gently ease the door open. I stand in the reception area, trying to hear anything, but the place is quiet and still. I scan the ceiling for any cameras, but if there are any, I don’t see them.

I step inside and let the door close softly behind me. I let my eyes adjust to the dim light and try and listen for any new noises. There are a few chairs scattered along the room and a cheap plywood reception desk. I walk over to it. There’s nothing. No signs, no brochures, nothing to tell me what this building is or who Steve works for. There’s only one way out of the reception area, and I take it. It’s a long straight hallway, empty except for the light seeping out from the door at the end. I start creeping along, trying to be as quiet as possible. If the door opens, and they return, there will be no place for me to hide. I remind myself that I’m here to confront these two pricks, but I’d rather surprise them instead of the other way around.

At the end of the hall, I stop and listen again. Now I can hear the wail and grind of machinery but nothing else. The door has no handle, it swings to open. I put my hand on it and push slowly. Inch by inch, it moves, letting more and more light leak out. The machinery is rumbling loudly. I can’t hear much over the noise. And then, all at once, the machinery noise dies. The door is partially open. Enough that I can start to move through it a bit. I press my stomach against the door and try and inch my way in.

With a little effort, I manage to move so that I can peer into the room while keeping myself partially hidden by the door. I lean my head in. It’s a large space littered with open cardboard boxes and industrial-sized plastic containers filled with pink, green and blue chemicals. There are steel shelving and lockers along the far wall. In the middle of the room is a very large steel piece of machinery that resembles an oversized industrial oven with a conveyer belt running through the center. On one end, I see what looks like a mannequin on the conveyer belt.

I’m still trying to process what I’m seeing when Steve steps out from behind the machine. He has some kind of oversized wrench in his hands. He’s fixated on the machine and doesn’t notice me at all. There’s no sign of the imposter. I duck my head back and check my phone. GPS says the imposter is still in the building. Fuck. I lean forward again and take a minute to watch Steve work. He’s fiddling with the machine, but there is no sign of the imposter.

I take a chance and slide into the room. I let the door close. I stand there watching Steve work. The room is quiet except for his occasional grunt. I start forward, but the jig is up. Whether because Steve finally senses he isn’t alone or because he chose that moment to grab one of the chemical containers, I will never know. He looks over at me, and our eyes lock. There is a hint of surprise on his face, but it doesn’t linger.

It’s then that I remember that Steve wears glasses, and this guy isn’t wearing glasses. And while he looks like the shifty guy from the office, there’s something off about him, and I know immediately that this isn’t Steve or the imposter.

“Who the fuck are you,” says the Machinist.

“I’m looking for Steve,” I say.

He grimaces and then smiles.

“Steve, huh?” he says. “Just hold up a minute pal, I’ll ring him for ya.”

He reaches into his pocket. I start to panic, thinking he’s got a gun, but instead, he pulls out his phone. He thumbs the screen a few times, never letting his eyes off me. He’s still holding the wrench. After fiddling with his phone, he puts it back in his pocket. He watches me but says nothing.

I’m tense. I want to ask him what the hell is going on but never get the chance. A shrill digital alarm starts sounding, and from behind the machine, I hear a series of banging, like each locker door is being opened and closed. The man is smiling at me now, but I don’t have time for him because all at once the room has exploded with people. Or rather, with Steve. The real Steve. Ugly glasses and all. But he isn’t alone. He’s brought his three or four or five brothers, or maybe they are all his cousins, I don’t fucking know because they are all carbon copies of one another. Clones. Doppelgangers. A dozen of them in all, not counting the Machinist who is laughing heartily now.

“Here he is pal, here’s Steve,” he says.

They are like a pack of wolves. Fast, efficient, mean. I panic and start backing away as fast as I can. But I’m too slow, and they are all over me before I make three steps.

Hands are punching and pummeling me and dragging me down. I am thrashing wildly to get away, but there’s more of them than of me. I can’t see much of anything, I’m too busy trying to block the punches and kicks and what may bites to my body. I’m screaming at the top of my lungs, but they are unrelenting.

Somewhere I hear a voice yell, “hold him while I get a sample.”

I don’t know who is speaking, but I feel the jab of a needle in my arm. I’m still screaming. Someone is taking my blood. Or maybe injecting me with poison. I don’t know what happens next because I pass out. And when I come to, I’m in a casket. Or at least I think it’s a casket. It’s got some kind of satin lining, and my head is resting on a pillow. Only I’m not dead. I push up on the lid, but it won’t budge. I try hitting it hard with my fists, but nothing happens. I try and kick but get nowhere. I give up and force myself to calm down. I slow my breathing. I’m not dead, but soon will be if I don’t figure out how to get out of this fucking box. I scream as loud as I can for help, but my voice ricochets dully around the interior. I slow my breathing again. I have to resist the impulse to panic. Think, goddamn it, think. It’s then that I feel the buzzing in my pant pocket. It’s my phone. I can’t believe I still have my phone. What kind of idiots leave their victims with their phones? I reach for it and get it out of my pocket. I don’t have a lot of room to move, but I manage to get it out. I ignore the email that just pinged and unlock it. I speed-dial Judy. I need her to find me. I can share my location with her. I hope.

The phone rings. She picks up on the second ring.

“Hello,” she says.

“Judy,” I say. “It’s me, Mike. I need your help.”

“Ha ha,” she says. “Very funny. Who is this?”

“It’s Mike,” I say, my voice rising in desperation. “Listen, I don’t have time to explain. I need you to find me. Bring the police.”

“Seriously,” she says. “This isn’t funny.”

“I know it’s not funny,” I say. “Steve and his doppelgangers attacked me and locked me in a box. A casket. I can’t get out. You need to get help. You need to get over here.”

“Ha ha,” she says. “Did Mike put you up to this?”

“I am Mike,” I say desperately.

“Sure, you are,” she says. “And I suppose the man sitting in Mike’s office is an imposter. Ha ha. I got work to do.”

She hangs up. Fuck. I try her again, but she doesn’t answer. I don’t have time to call her again before I feel the casket move. I’m being dropped. I stare at my phone. The signal has gone from three bars to two. To one. And nothing.