This was, easily, the weirdest first day on the job he’d ever had. Including the water park, and that first day had ended with three paramedics and a small fire. At least when he’d shown up the location had seen normal. Parking lot away from the customers, locker room, other college kids either eager or over it. The address he had walked to from the train was a factory with some old logo fading off the brick, surrounded by other factories in varying levels of disrepair. Some were still in use, he could hear machine noises and people calling to each other, but the sounds were echoes off the walls. All the buildings closest were empty and dark, including the one he was standing in front of. There was a single window three stories above him with lights on, and as he stood wondering if he should just go the tinkling sound of a woman laughing came through the glass. If he didn’t go in, where would he go instead? He looked up beyond the building, at the thick gray of the sky. It didn’t have any answers for him. Pushing down any other hesitation, Vinnie opened the door.
There was another door waiting for him at the top of the stairs, and he pushed it open without waiting, knowing if he hesitated he’d turn and run all the way back down. A thin, flaky relief made him shiver when he saw Joey sitting at the head of a table. At least he was in the right place. Four others sat there, turning to look at him, three women and a man. They had been talking, laughing about something when he opened the door but now were silent and waiting.
“There he is!” Joey said, his tan face beaming. “Right on time, too. Come in, get over here, didn’t your mother teach you not to linger in doorways?”
He almost turned and ran again, and gripped his fists in his gloves to hold himself. Yes, he could go. Nothing was stopping him. But what else was out there for him again? Oh, yes. Nothing. Walk to the table and breathe.
“This is our new Face?” one of the women said. She had a high, breathy voice – hers must have been the laughter he had heard downstairs – and small features. Her brown hair was shaped in a way that made him think of a mouse, and as she stared at him she shifted her coke-bottle glasses around as though they weren’t quite strong enough. She was sitting so close to the other man that their arms touched from shoulder to forearm.
Vinnie swallowed, terrified his words would come out cracked. “Hi, I’m-“
“No names,” Joey said. “Not until the end of the audition.”
“Audition?” There had been no mention of an audition the last time they had talked. Just a promise.
“Of course, audition. What, you think we hire just anyone? We need to make sure we work well together, and if we don’t we don’t need you out there putting names to faces for feds.”
Vinnie took a step back. “I don’t…I would never…”
Joey waved at him. “Relax. You’re going to pass today and then you’ll be one of us and we can have proper introductions. For now, we’ll stick with labels. That’s Eyes, and Fist. This is Smile. Down there is Spirit. And you, of course, will be Face.”
Oh, of course. Of course? These labels meant nothing to him, but the others were nodding like it all made sense.
“He doesn’t look like Sem,” the man – Fist – growled. Not maliciously. He must growl everything. Him and Eyes, the mousy woman, were a study in opposites. Short to tall, small to broad, pale-skinned to…well, the darkest black skin Vinnie had ever seen, at least in person. And if she was a mouse, he would come at you with the ferocity of a lion. Every angle he could see seemed chiseled from stone.
“Sem got burned,” Eyes said. “Wouldn’t make sense to hire someone just like him.”
“He looks a little wet behind the ears.”
This from the woman introduced as Smile, a slim Asian woman so impeccably dressed Vinnie wondered where the runway was. She was looking him up and down so closely, undressing him with her eyes without a hint of flirtation – or shame – that Vinnie had to look away before an awful blush could creep up his cheeks.
“He doesn’t look like a good liar,” Eyes said.
“Kind of the point. Unless he’s not actually good. You are good, right?”
They were all looking at him, now, in that intense examination. Behind the table the window above the door was slightly open, and he considered throwing himself out of it. This wasn’t what he expected. Or what Joey had promised.
“I’ve, uh, well, I’ve been in a lot of roles, plenty of leading, too, uh I was…”
“Wait, wait,” Smile said, holding up a hand and not living up to her name. “You’re a STAGE actor?”
“An actor, Joe? Really? Has he done…have you done any jobs?”
The half a second after the words, “Like TV?” left his mouth he realized what they were asking. The damage was done. The three of them were talking over each other, under each other, interweaving words to make it hard to pick any of it out. But he got the gist.
A heavy hand clapped him on the shoulder, nearly making him jump out of his skin.
“You people are vultures. Of course the guy’s good, I scouted him myself. What, you think I would fuck this up? If you don’t trust him, trust me.” The others said nothing but didn’t quite look placated. “Come on. Spirit trusts me, right?”
Spirit was the last woman at the far end of the table, boots up on the corner and leaning back in her chair with her arms crossed. She looked like she belonged in some biker bar on the outskirts of town, with her jeans and black t-shirt and sunglasses indoors. Actually…
Joey grunted. “She’s asleep, isn’t she?”
With an eye roll, Fist pushed Spirit’s boots off the table. They hit the ground with a SMACK and she started with a grunt, grabbing the table as though it was flying away. When she realized the room wasn’t collapsing she took her sunglasses off, revealing dazed gray eyes. They settled on Smile.
“You were supposed to wake me up when we started,” she said.
“I never said that.”
“Oh. Must have dreamed it.” She looked at Vinnie for the first time and sniffed. “Who’s the dweeb?”
Vinnie had already been pushed past any sort of place where ‘dweeb’ could offend him… much…but next to him he heard Joey sigh. This was the moment, he was sure of it. The moment he would prove himself. The moment he would finally be accepted for who he was. He began to pull a glove off.
Joey stopped him with a single hand and a barely perceptible shake of his head. And Vinnie thought, what?