The odds of any one of us having a doppelganger are quite high. Whether or not you got to meet him or her, or be confronted by them was significantly lower. Except of course, unless you are a celebrity.
It was a phenomenon remarkable only for the fact, at times, certain high-profile people, notorious or not, had doubles if only to put off enemies or the general public. Sometimes we see people in the street, people who look like someone we knew, and made the mistake of approaching them like a long lost friend, only to discover an embarrassed individual desperately trying to get away for what they perceive is a stalker or worse.
And then sometimes it is a picture that looms up on a TV screen, an almost exact likeness of you. At first, you are fascinated, and then according to the circumstances, and narrative that is attached to that picture, either flattered or horrified.
For me one turned to the other when I saw an almost likeness of me flash up on the screen when I turned the TV on in my room. What looked to be my photo, with only minor differences, was in the corner of the screen, the newsreader speaking in rapid Italian, so fast I could only translate every second or third word.
But the one word I did recognize was murder. The photo of the man up on the screen was the subject of an extensive manhunt. The crime, the murder of a woman in the very same hotel I was staying, and it was being played out live several floors above me. The gist of the story, the woman had been seen with, and staying with the man who was my double, and, less than an hour ago, the body had been discovered by a chambermaid.
The killer, the announcer said, was believed to be still in the hotel because the woman had died shortly before she had been discovered.
I watched, at first fascinated at what I was seeing. I guess I should have been horrified, but at that moment it didn’t register that I might be mistaken for that man.
Not until another five minutes had passed, and I was watching the police in full riot gear, with a camera crew following behind, coming up a passage towards a room. Live action of the arrest of the suspected killer the breathless commentator said.
Then, suddenly, there was a pounding on the door. On the TV screen, plain to see, was the number of my room.
I looked through the peephole and saw an army of police officers. It didn’t take much to realize what had happened. The hotel staff identified me as the man in the photograph on the TV and called the police.
Horrified wasn’t what I was feeling right then.
It was fear.
My last memory was the door crashing open, the wood splintering, and men rushing into the room, screaming at me, waving guns, and when I put my hands up to defend myself, I heard a gunshot.
And in one very confused and probably near-death experience, I thought I saw my mother and thought what was she doing in Rome?
I was the archetypal nobody.
I lived in a small flat, I drove a nondescript car, had an average job in a low profile travel agency, was single, and currently not involved in a relationship, no children, and according to my workmates, no life.
They were wrong. I was one of those people who preferred their own company, I had a cat, and travelled whenever I could. And I did have a ‘thing’ for Rosalie, one of the reasons why I stayed at the travel agency. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but one could always hope.
I was both pleased and excited to be going to the conference. It was my first, and the glimpse I had seen of it had whetted my appetite for more information about the nuances of my profession.
Some would say that a travel agent wasn’t much of a job, but to me, it was every bit as demanding as being an accountant or a lawyer. You were providing a customer with a service, and arguably more people needed a travel agent than a lawyer. At least that was what I told myself, as I watched more and more people start using the internet, and our relevance slowly dissipating.
This conference was about countering that trend.
The trip over had been uneventful. I was met at the airport and taken to the hotel where the conference was being held with a number of other delegates who had arrived on the same plane. I had mingled with a number of other delegates at the pre conference get together, including one whose name was Maryanne.
She was an unusual young woman, not the sort that I usually met, because she was the one who was usually surrounded by all the boys, the life of the party. In normal circumstances, I would not have introduced myself to her, but she had approached me. Why did I think that may have been significant? All of this ran through my mind, culminating in the last event on the highlight reel, the door bursting open, men rushing into my room, and then one of the policemen opened fire.
I replayed that last scene again, trying to see the face of my assailant, but it was just a sea of men in battle dress, bullet proof vests and helmets, accompanied by screaming and yelling, some of which I identified as “Get on the floor”.
Then came the shot.
Why ask me to get on the floor if all they were going to do was shoot me. I was putting my hands up at the time, in surrender, not reaching for a weapon.
Then I saw the face again, hovering in the background like a ghost. My mother. Only the hair was different, and her clothes, and then the image was going, perhaps a figment of my imagination brought on by pain killing drugs. I tried to imagine the scene again, but this time it played out, without the image of my mother.
I opened my eyes took stock of my surroundings. What I felt in that exact moment couldn’t be described. I should most likely be dead, the result of a gunshot wound. I guess I should be thankful the shooter hadn’t aimed at anything vital, but that was the only item on the plus side.
I was in a hospital room with a policeman by the door. He was reading a newspaper, and sitting uncomfortably on a small chair. He gave me a quick glance when he heard me move slightly, but didn’t acknowledge me with either a nod, or a greeting, just went back to the paper.
If I still had a police guard, then I was still considered a suspect. What was interesting was that I was not handcuffed to the bed. Perhaps that only happened in TV shows. Or maybe they knew I couldn’t run because my injuries were too serious. Or the guard would shoot me long before my feet hit the floor. I knew the police well enough now to know they would shoot first and ask questions later.
On the physical side, I had a large bandage over the top left corner of my chest, extending over my shoulder. A little poking and prodding determined the bullet had hit somewhere between the top of my rib cage and my shoulder. Nothing vital there, but my arm might be somewhat useless for a while, depending on what the bullet hit on the way in, or through.
It didn’t feel like there were any broken or damaged bones.
That was the good news.
On the other side of the ledger, my mental state, there was only one word that could describe it. Terrified. I was looking at a murder charge and jail time, a lot of it. Murder usually had a long time in jail attached to it.
Whatever had happened, I didn’t do it. I know I didn’t do it, but I had to try and explain this to people who had already made up their minds. I searched my mind for evidence. It was there, but in the confused state brought on by the medication, all I could think about was jail, and the sort of company I was going to have.
I think death would have been preferable.
Half an hour later, maybe longer, I was drifting in an out of consciousness, a nurse, or what I thought was a nurse, came into the room. The guard stood, checked her ID card, and then stood by the door.
She came over and stood beside the bed. “How are you?” she asked, first in Italian, and when I pretended I didn’t understand, she asked the same question in accented English.
“Alive, I guess,” I said. “No one has come and told what my condition is yet. You are my first visitor. Can you tell me?”
“Of course. You are very lucky to be alive. You will be fine and make a full recovery. The doctors here are excellent at their work.”
“What happens now?”
“I check you, and then you have a another visitor. He is from the British Embassy I think. But he will have to wait until I have finished my examination.”
I realized then she was a doctor, not a nurse.
My second visitor was a man, dressed in a suit the sort of which I associated with the British Civil Service. He was not very old which told me he was probably a recent graduate on his first posting, the junior officer who drew the short straw.
The guard checked his ID but again did not leave the room, sitting back down and going back to his newspaper.
My visitor introduced himself as Alex Jordan from the British Embassy in Rome and that he had been asked by the Ambassador to sort out what he labelled a tricky mess.
For starters, it was good to see that someone cared about what happened to me. But, equally, I knew the mantra, get into trouble overseas, and there is not much we can do to help you. So, after that lengthy introduction, I had to wonder why he was here.
I said, “They think I am an international criminal by the name of Jacob Westerbury, whose picture looks just like me, and apparently for them it is an open and shut case.” I could still hear the fragments of the yelling as the police burst through the door, at the same time telling me to get on the floor with my hands over my head.
“It’s not. They know they’ve got the wrong man, which is why I’m here. There is the issue of what had been described as excessive force, and the fact you were shot had made it an all-round embarrassment for them.”
“Then why are you here? Shouldn’t they be here apologizing?”
“That is why you have another visitor. I only took precedence because I insisted I speak with you first. I have come, basically to ask you for a favour. This situation has afforded us with an opportunity. We would like you to sign the official document which basically indemnifies them against any legal proceedings.”
Curious. What sort of opportunity was he talking about? Was this a matter than could get difficult and I could be charged by the Italian Government, even if I wasn’t guilty, or was it one of those hush hush type deals, you do this for us, we’ll help you out with that. “What sort of opportunity?”
“We want to get our hands on Jacob Westerbury as much as they do. They’ve made a mistake, and we’d like to use that to get custody of him if or when he is arrested in this country. I’m sure you would also like this man brought into custody as soon as possible so you will stop being confused with him. I can only imagine what it was like to be arrested in the manner you were. And I would not blame you if you wanted to get some compensation for what they’ve done. But. There are bigger issues in play here, and you would be doing this for your country.”
I wondered what would happen if I didn’t agree to his proposal. I had to ask, “What if I don’t?”
His expression didn’t change. “I’m sure you are a sensible man Mr Pargeter, who is more than willing to help his country whenever he can. They have agreed to take care of all your hospital expenses, and refund the cost of the Conference, and travel. I’m sure I could also get them to pay for a few days at Capri, or Sorrento if you like, before you go home. What do you say?”
There was only one thing I could say. Wasn’t it treason if you went against your country’s wishes?
“I’m not an unreasonable man, Alex. Go do your deal, and I’ll sign the papers.”
After Alex left, the doctor came back to announce the arrival of a woman, by the way she had announced herself, the publicity officer from the Italian police. When she came into the room, she was not dressed in a uniform.
The doctor left after giving a brief report to the civilian at the door. I understood the gist of it, “The patient has recovered excellently and the wounds are healing as expected. There is no cause for concern.”
That was a relief.
While the doctor was speaking to the civilian, I speculated on who she might be. She was young, not more than thirty, conservatively dressed so an official of some kind, but not necessarily with the police. Did they have prosecutors? I was unfamiliar with the Italian legal system.
She had long wavy black hair and the sort of sultry looks of an Italian movie star, and her presence made me more curious than fearful though I couldn’t say why.
The woman then spoke to the guard, and he reluctantly got up and left the room, closing the door behind him.
She checked the door, and then came back towards me, standing at the end of the bed. Now alone, she said, “A few questions before we begin.” Her English was only slightly accented. “Your name is Jack Pargeter?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“You are in Rome to attend the Travel Agents Conference at the Hilton Hotel?”
“You attended a preconference introduction on the evening of the 25th, after arriving from London at approximately 4:25 pm.”
“About that time, yes. I know it was about five when the bus came to collect me, and several others, to take us to the hotel.”
She smiled. It was then I noticed she was reading from a small notepad.
“It was ten past five to be precise. The driver had been held up in traffic. We have a number of witnesses who saw you on the plane, on the bus, at the hotel, and with the aid of closed circuit TV we have established you are not the criminal Jacob Westerbury.”
She put her note book back in her bag and then said, “My name is Vicenza Andretti and I am with the prosecutor’s office. I am here to formally apologize for the situation that can only be described as a case of mistaken identity. I assure you it is not the habit of our police officers to shoot people unless they have a very strong reason for doing so. I understand that in the confusion of the arrest one of our officers accidentally discharged his weapon. We are undergoing a very thorough investigation into the circumstances of this event.”
I was not sure why, but between the time I had spoken to the embassy official and now, something about letting them off so easily was bugging me. I could see why they had sent her. It would be difficult to be angry or annoyed with her.
But I was annoyed.
“Do you often send a whole squad of trigger happy riot police to arrest a single man?” It came out harsher than I intended.
“My men believed they were dealing with a dangerous criminal.”
“Do I look like a dangerous criminal?” And then I realized if it was mistaken identity, the answer would be yes.
She saw the look on my face, and said quietly, “I think you know the answer to that question, Mr. Pargeter.”
“Well, it was overkill.”
“As I said, we are very sorry for the circumstances you now find yourself in. You must understand that we honestly believed we were dealing with an armed and dangerous murderer, and we were acting within our mandate. My department will cover your medical expenses, and any other amounts for the inconvenience this has caused you. I believe you were attending a conference at your hotel. I am very sorry but given the medical circumstances you have, you will have to remain here for a few more days.”
“I guess, then, I should thank you for not killing me.”
Her expression told me that was not the best thing I could have said in the circumstances.
“I mean, I should thank you for the hospital and the care. But a question or two of my own. May I?”
“Did you catch this Jacob Westerbury character?”
“No. In the confusion created by your arrest he escaped. Once we realized we had made a mistake and reviewed the close circuit TV, we tracked him leaving by a rear exit.”
“Are you sure it was one of your men who shot me?”
I watched as her expression changed, to one of surprise.
“You don’t think it was one of my men?”
“Oddly enough no. But don’t ask me why.”
“It is very interesting that you should say that, because in our initial investigation, it appeared none of our officer’s weapons had been discharged. A forensic investigation into the bullet tells us it was one that is used in our weapons, but…”
I could see their dilemma.
“Have you any enemies that would want to shoot you Mr Pargeter?”
That was absurd because I had no enemies, at least none that I knew of, much less anyone who would want me dead.
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Then it is strange, and will perhaps remain a mystery. I will let you know if anything more is revealed in our investigation.”
She took an envelope out of her briefcase and opened it, pulling out several sheets of paper.
I knew what it was. A verbal apology was one thing, but a signed waiver would cover them legally. They had sent a pretty girl to charm me. Perhaps using anyone else it would not have worked. There was potential for a huge litigation payout here, and someone more ruthless would jump at the chance of making a few million out of the Italian Government.
“We need a signature on this document,” she said.
“Absolving you of any wrong doing?”
“I have apologized. We will take whatever measures are required for your comfort after this event. We are accepting responsibility for our actions, and are being reasonable.”
They were. I took the pen from her and signed the documents.
“You couldn’t add dinner with you on that list of benefits?” No harm in asking.
“I am unfortunately unavailable.”
I smiled. “It wasn’t a request for a date, just dinner. You can tell me about Rome, as only a resident can. Please.”
She looked me up and down, searching for the ulterior motive. When she couldn’t find one, she said, “We shall see once the hospital discharges you in a few days.”
“Then I’ll pencil you in?”
She looked at me quizzically. “What is this pencil me in?”
“It’s an English colloquialism. It means maybe. As when you write something in pencil, it is easy to erase it.”
A momentary frown, then recognition and a smile. “I shall remember that. Thank-you for your time and co-operation Mr. Pargeter. Good morning.”
© Charles Heath 2015-2021