The spartan room seemed to shrink the longer I sat in the cheap, plastic seat. I shifted uncomfortably, a futile attempt to unstick my thighs from the slatted plastic. I made a mental note to adjust my skirt as soon as I stood up. I reminded myself training would be over soon. I would be able to design my own office - or at least choose where to meet with my clients. For some reason, the experience employee to whom I was assigned, Agent J., kept his room spartan. And sweltering.
The balding man who sought out our services sat hunched over on the other side of the table. He wore a suit, no doubt to give off the impression of an upstanding member of society, but I could see threadbare patches and a stain on the left cuff. The man kept dabbing at his sweaty scalp with a discolored handkerchief as he used his other hand to rifle through the papers. Meanwhile, Agent J. maintained an inhuman level of calm and stillness on the other side of the table.
The man cleared his throat. Agent J. leaned over the table ever so slightly to show his attention. The man huffed and wiped at his head again. He repulsed me.
“S-s-s-o people will really think I’m dead?” He finally managed to stammer.
“That is the package you have selected Mr. Hammons,” Agent J. replied coolly.
“I just don’t see how this could possibly work.” The man sat up and pushed the papers away. I could see some were only half filled out while others had not been started. A few wet spots glistened. Sweat, undoubtedly.
“Mr. Hammons,” Agent J. addressed the man. “You are the one who sought out our services. That tells me that you need us. We have plenty of clients. It is not us who needs you. You were able to find us due to the indiscretion of a past client of ours. If a client chooses to disclose the nature of our business, that is his or her choice. An ill-advised choice, but one that the client is free to make.” The man nodded. At no point did he look up from the table.
“Mr. Hammons,” Agent J. spoke with a firmness I had not often heard him use. “When you consulted us you said you tried to search for that man online. You said that you were not able to uncover even the tiniest thread that could connect him to his former life. I believe that should be the proof you need.”
Mr. Hammons raised the handkerchief to his head once more. He gulped and I could see his Adam’s apple move. “Very well.” He reached a shaky hand out for the papers and continued to sign them. He looked defeated when he finished. Agent J. reached out and slid the papers into the correct order before sliding them into the correct file. He reached out a hand and the man reluctantly shook it.
“Congratulations on your new life,” Agent J. said, his voice revealing no emotion. “My colleague will now show you to the next room.” My cue to stand up and escort the man out of the room was delivered so smoothly I almost missed it.
I kept my hands on the sides of my skirt as I stood. I gave the man a small smile and a brief head nod. He seemed too bewildered to notice.
As we walked down the hallway and my heels clicked on the linoleum I found it difficult not to slip into small talk. Getting to know the clients on a personal level was expressly forbidden. We could know intimate details about their lives, but they were not to even know our real names.
Agent J. sat in a chair next to a window in the break room. He had the recliner pushed pack and his suit jacket off.
“How did he seem when you left him?” His voice startled me. I looked up, but his eyes still gazed out the window.
“The same,” I reported. “Nervous, awkward.”
“Did you read his file?”
“Not yet, sir.”
“I left it on the counter for you.”
The break room was small and impersonal and at the moment occupied by only the two of us. I approached the counter cautiously and lifted the file. It had a heftiness to it that I did not expect.
William Hammons, 54, white male
Weight: 277 lbs.
The picture William Hammons had included in his file must have been taken for a work identification badge. He looked much better in the small, rectangular photo than he had in real life. A picture fell out from the pages. I bent down to pick it up and paused when I saw it was a family photo. In this photo, Hammons looked much more normal. He had his arm around a brunette woman who had her hair cut in a severe bob. In front of them stood four young girls. I flipped the photo over. William - 50, Vivian - 45, Gianna - 10, Margot - 7, Kimberly and Riley - 5. The repulsion I felt earlier came back with a vengeance. This man came to us looking for an escape. He wished to leave his entire life behind. His mortgage, his failing company, the gambling debt he had accrued. And this woman, Vivian, and their four young daughters. He wished to start over and get away with it. I stuffed the papers back in the envelope.
“You’ll get used to it eventually,” Agent J. called from his spot by the window. “They’re pretty much all like that.”
I sighed. I had been warned. As someone who wanted a fresh start herself, it didn’t seem so bad. But that was before I started seeing the clients. Soon my training would be over and I would be the one facilitating the transition to their new lives. I would have the role Agent J. had in that room, responding calmly and firmly, organizing the papers. And I would not be able to express an opinion on the clients. I could not say a word about the morality of what they were seeking to do. I could not ask if they had considered the anguish that would face their spouses and children when we turned up with a death certificate. The thought of it all overwhelmed me and I found myself desperately needing fresh air. I rushed outside and gasped in all of the warm air I could. Overhead, thunderheads threatened to explode.