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‘The customer won’t be buyin’ if you are always cryin’ read various motivational posters on the walls of the telemarketing rooms. Rory J. Ribert, Sales Manager of Dial-N-Smile Inc., looked out on the empty sales rep cubicles stretching away at a wide angle from his corner office. Four blessed silent hours remained before the evening shift began. Though an atheist, he said a prayer of thanks for the blissful peace created by this lovely absence of jabbering telemarketers.
Sliding open the low-slung console behind him, concealing a monitor linked to cameras hidden above the sales floor, Rory could watch the staff jerking and bob about like hyperactive monkeys during their marketing calls. This system also allowed him to monitor their conversations, ensuring that they were sticking to business, not chatting with their lovers or drug dealers.
Rory, frustrated, rubbed his eyes wearily: John Jeffy, the owner, had invested big money in all this high-tech gear, yet with salaries and other miscellaneous overhead, the company was barely breaking even. The ratio of marketing calls to the customer ‘no sales’ contacts was increasing alarmingly; potential buyers of their product magazines could simply go online now and read and/or buy most of what Dial-N-Smile sold. But John Jeffy would not adjust the firm’s marketing strategy: he was stuck in the pre-Internet era of the ’70s and ’80s.
Moreover, the quality of the available reps had hit rock bottom: felons, drunks, crack addicts, young headbangers. It was a sad day when management had to eavesdrop on routine sales calls, not for quality but for criminal activity.
Indeed, Rory often suspected that John Jeffy considered a felonious past a valuable skill for a successful telemarketer. Something about the mercenary, unrestrained style of an ex-convict made such a person especially effective in this business.
Jeffy had Rory run applicants through a “read-response sales IQ” test: if they could get through the “pitch” script without stuttering and answer a few simple “typical customer care” questions, they were hired. No reference or background checks were conducted.
John Jeffy believed in hiring the barbarians and losers in bulk — for minimum wage with lies about huge potential commissions — and, then often as not, firing in bulk. “Just throw ’em to the wolves, Rory,” he often said. “Sell or go to hell,” screamed the cheesy motto on the old bastard’s desk. In this dump, selling in hell these days was more like it.
The office intercom buzzed. Jane Bowen, the foyer receptionist, who doubled as the accountant, spoke in her usual whiny, quasi-nasty voice: “Rory, your 2 pm applicant appointment, the one referred by Mr. Jeffy, is here.”
Last night, he had had to fire an employee for failing to meet his sales quotas. Today, as much as he hated it, he had to interview again. Jeffy had promised to network among his old industry contacts for an applicant with some sales experience.
The portly Jeffy himself, much to Rory’s surprise, waddled into the office with the 2 pm appointment, a bespectacled, very pale, slender man in his fifties. Protruding from his dirty collar, a scrawny neck from which bulged a massive Adam’s apple like a grotesque tumor.
Lost in his cheap baggy polyester suit, the applicant, almost skeletal with a gaunt, cadaverous face, appeared to be timid, shy, and reclusive — the very qualities the sales firm was not looking for. “Howdy sir”, the strange man said, greeting Rory in a weak and quivering voice that could not sell an umbrella in a tropical rainstorm.
God the stink, groaned Rory, almost nauseated by the powerful stench of sweat, mothballs, and stale smoke. Had this weird character been living in a closet or cheap room? At least the ex-cons and other losers Rory normally hired made an effort to wash and use deodorant or at least wear cologne or perfume. But this man’s odor alone would drive away other reps before they got fired for failing to meet their sales goals. These words instantly came to Rory’s mind: do not hire this smelly, wimpy bum.
Immediately, the weirdo excused himself to use the men’s room. Winking at Rory, Jeffy then cracked a crooked smile, and said cheerfully, “I know what you’re thinking; what rubbish bin did I drag that dog’s breath out of?”
“Good question, John. You’re becoming a mind reader in your old age,” replied Rory. “Who is he, and why is he here?”
“His name is Simon Sorter, and he is going to be our new top biller, believe it or not,” smirked Mr. Jeffy, like a naughty boy with a secret.
“I’d rather not believe it,” scowled Rory, shaking his head. Is the old geezer losing his marbles?
“Trust me,” assured Jeffy, his fragile face beaming softly like a prematurely aging child, “I used to work with Simon, and the guy has some amazing talents.”
“From his looks and smell, hygiene and high fashion are not among his best skills,” smirked Rory.
Mr. Jeffy opened his mouth to say something, but Simon Sorter reappeared, wiping his hands on his frayed trousers.
“I was just telling Rory here about what a great salesman you were in the days when we did account management together,” lied Mr. Jeffy.
Simon Sorter abnormally cocked his head side-wise, as if he were a puppet on a broken string. Rory, wincing, saw a nasty, crooked scar running the length of the odd man’s head and neck.
Then without a word, Simon crept, as if on sore feet, toward an empty workstation, logged on to the system, slipped a Dial-N-Smile magazine customers list from his shabby jacket, and began to call the phone numbers randomly generated by the computer. He did not use a script, nor did he smile.
Mr. Jeffy nudged Rory and said, “Watch this and be amazed. Simon is going to take our sales numbers through the roof and save our asses from bankruptcy. Nobody will want to buy off the Internet when they can buy our mags from this amazing guy.”
Immediately, the death-warmed-over pallor of Simon’s face flushed bright red like a giant drop of blood. From one call to the next, his voice changed drastically depending on which magazine he was hustling. For the next hour, a stunned Rory, with a grinning Mr. Jeffy by his side, watched in awe as Simon Sorter’s Multiple Personality Disorder became an incredible marketing tool.
When pitching the ‘adult’ glossy Le Sex, he called potential buyers as Jack the Zipper, feigning a suggestive, sultry voice. Next selling the specialty music mag Rap Sheet, he literally became Mr. Groove, replete with ghetto slang and deejay patter.
And so it went. For Antique World, he was Pappy Smith, his voice aged and frail; marketing Big Wheels, the timid, anemic-looking Simon Sorter seemed to sprout into a fearsome psycho Hell’s Angel type code-named Rod Piston, his sales spiel threatening and gruff. Other remarkable performances followed: Gun News made Simon into Tommy Guns, who wowed his customers with his Southern drawl and defense of the Right to Bear Arms. Computer Time transformed the normally mumbling clod into a very articulate, brisk personality Simon Server, tossing off technobabble with the greatest of ease.
In fact, in front of Rory’s eyes, Simon Sorter must have assumed and shed at least twenty different personalities, voices, and names. His sales tally sheet boggled Rory’s mind; the disheveled eccentric had exceeded the top rep’s billings by 90%.
“Now pal, you know why we used to call him Morphing Man,” happily purred Mr. Jeffy.
“Yeah, I must admit, it’s freaking incredible. How did he get like that?”
Mr. Jeffy motioned Rory away from Simon’s workstation and spoke in a hushed tone: “You saw that scar? He was in a horrible accident when he was about forty. Split his head and neck open. A few years later, he started having multiple personalities. Underwent treatment, but later got into sales with me. Sometimes it takes a weird person to do good marketing.”
“Yeah, maybe a bit nuts is okay, but not a psycho…”
From Simon’s workstation came a fresh confusion of voices as he plowed anew into the call list. Mr. Jeffy asked Rory to wait in the office. A few minutes later, Jeffy and Simon Sorter, both stone-faced, entered, closed the door, and stared at Rory without speaking. Cold sweat trickled down his neck. The atmosphere was funereal, and he felt like a corpse on display. On the other hand, considering Simon’s zombie-like gaze, maybe it was more of the dead inspecting the living.
Jeffy spoke first in his best smarmy, ingratiating tone, “Rory, you know how bad the market is now… um… what with the competition from online sales… I mean, it is just killing us…”
“Yeah, I have been saying that for months…” Rory mumbled, feeling the pit of his stomach curdle slightly. Where was this leading?
“Well, with Simon on board now, your relationship to this firm, old pal, has to change …” Jeffy’s jowls drooped theatrically, faking a sad look.
I got to give it to the old clown, thought Rory; he’s a master con artist. “Hang on,” Rory retorted, barely concealing a snarl, “you mean…?”
“No,” murmured Jeffy soothingly, “you are not being downsized; your excellent sales skills will just be used on the phones. Sorry, but I simply cannot afford your full manager’s salary now, though I will pay you $9.00 an hour, better than the base minimum wage, and give you a higher potential commission rate.” Jeffy smiled cheerfully and dreamily at Rory, as if he had just given his former sales manager a 75% raise on his original salary.
A suppressed growl ripped viciously from between Rory’s bared teeth: “Screw you, Jeffy. I don’t want to be one of your sales monkeys, one of your two-bit telemarketing whores. Yeah, I know, you don’t need to tell me anymore. You are giving my salary to this weirdo freak in the smelly suit as his base wage.” Rory thumbed violently toward the Morphing Man.
“You been in this business a long time, Rory,” clucked Jeffy in his most patronizing manner, “and you know that a good base salary has to go to the most productive sales employee. Bottom line: I am abolishing the Sales Manager position, and if you don’t want a sales rep slot, then that is your choice.”
A deep unearthly voice suddenly boomed from Simon’s throat: “You Rory Ribert are therefore no longer required as an employee of Dial-N-Smile.!” Rory literally jumped from his seat: Christ, this was it; he was now being really fired — dead meat.
Then Rory thought calmly. Though Jeffy had some gall, replacing Rory with a cruddy weirdo who must live in a used clothes bin at the Salvation Army, Jeffy was really gifting Rory a blessing. After all, who could stand coming to work anymore at Dial-N-Smile? In a few weeks, it would stink like a mothball factory. Even if Simon Sorter improved sales by 150%, nobody, even the otherwise unemployable losers and barbarians, could stomach working here anymore.
No longer cheerful now, the old crook Jeffy had withdrawn into the shadows of the office corner, the executioner quietly delegating the dirty work to his creepy, bootlicking lackey. After all their years in business together: sorry bastard.
“Well, don’t forget that my contract gives me a severance package. So I don’t give a damn about this hole in the wall!” laughed Rory wildly, suddenly relieved at the thought of never having to interview any more useless applicants.
“That is something we need to talk about,” Jeffy replied coldly, peeping out of the shadows.
“Better not try to screw me, you cheap bastard,” yelled Rory, “otherwise I’ll be seeing you in court.”
He bolted for the door, but Simon, showing amazing strength and quickness, grabbed his shoulder. Again, Simon’s voice changed, this time into a very good imitation of Mr. Jeffy’s singsong cheerfulness: “Looks like we’ll have to part ways, partner…”
From the same pocket that had contained the customer call list, Simon whipped out a knife-sharp letter opener; the “Mr. Jeffy’s voice,” again, but this time slurred and vicious. “The good news is I can save you from going to court. The bad news is that you won’t be seeing or calling anybody anymore. You’re useless phone time now, Rory, wasted cubicle space, dead air.”
As if somebody had pulled a plug in Simon’s brain, the John Jeffy persona abruptly stopped. His face now seemed to be undergoing serial plastic surgery at the speed of light: Simon Sorter’s features morphed into gnashing feral teeth, wild yellow eyes, a snarling, pulpy mouth, black rotting gums, squirming scars. Then a veritable wax museum of evil masks: Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Ted Bundy, Pol Pot, Frankenstein. Still powerfully griping Rory’s shoulder, Simon Sorter raised the knife-like letter opener to the ex-sales manager’s trembling throat.
Just before the blade sliced into his jugular vein, Rory saw through the office window that an earlier applicant had returned. The little man was frantically looking for his umbrella inside the front door, by the employees’ coat rack. Rory started to yell, but the little man, suddenly realizing that he’d had the umbrella in his rucksack all along, darted back into the shadows, through the foyer, out into the late afternoon sunlight, well out of earshot of Rory’s gurgling screams.
This story originally appeared in Bewildering Stories, Issue 225.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Thomas White’s speculative fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in online and print literary magazines in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author and contributor to various journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.