For the cost of a steak dinner

By Randy McIntosh

I love a good steak,” the old man held up his fork with a cut piece of meat dangling on the end, “it’s so hard to get these days.”

Looking closely at his face, it was hard to imagine that he was a hired Killer. The wrinkles were more consistent with someone who loved to laugh rather than someone with his reputation for discrete and efficient assassinations.

“Well, this place is the last bastion of our carnivore cravings,” I forced a smile. Though I used to like meat, the change in diet for most of us made it a tremendous luxury.  I hadn’t had meat in several years, though now I found the aroma intoxicating.

He laughed aloud and chomped down. 

We’d spent the last several moments in small talk, covering issues about the weather and climate, the history around the political changes in the US and the UK, and the formation of the new Global Council, whose role it was to advise and coordinate resource allocation between national and international governments.

He took a gulp of wine and looked over at me.

“So, you are interviewing me for a book you’re writing?”

“Exactly,” I opened my tablet and took out a stylus to start making notes, “As I told you in my message, I’m writing a novel about the old criminal underworld and need some real stories to inspire my characters.

“I promise that I won’t reveal any names and the characters that come out of this will be a mash-up of stories I collected and my own embellishments. I’ve done this before with a few short stories about the protests that happened before the Global Council was formed,” I reached for my glass of wine, taking a sip.

“I didn’t know that you’ve already published. Is your stuff out?” He cut another slice of steak.

“Naw, the stories aren’t that good. I think I’ll do better with a novel.”

“Well, I’d be interested in reading what you’ve written,” he bit down on the piece, chewed and swallowed, “and you found me how?”

I made a few notes on the tablet, which gave me time to formulate my answer, “I used to work with the Special Attorney’s office and had access to many of the files. Everyone knows your reputation in the entertainment business, but of course very few know about your work as a gun-for-hire.”

“You know I have immunity from prosecution,” he was stern.

“Of course. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable and assure you that my only intention is to interview you as an anonymous source for my book.”

He stared at me. In all his years as a successful entertainer and as a successful Killer, he probably could tell when someone was trying to hide something.

“No worries,” he smiled and gulped more wine, “let me just free associate then. I didn’t really prepare anything so I’ll just start talking about whatever comes to mind.”

“Perfect.”

He turned his attention to his plate again. I breathed a slight sigh of relief and moved my leg a bit closer to the chair. The metal in my boot was cold against my flesh.

#

One of his earliest memories was a job he did when he was still playing piano in small jazz clubs.

“Most people probably think that we just do what we’re told. You get a call, you get a contract, you execute, simple as that.” He poured himself more wine, offering to top up my glass.

“No, thank you.  My writing is bad enough without being half drunk,” I held my hand in front of my glass.

I felt like he was going to bring up a tired cliche where the killer finds his conscience at the last minute and decides to spare the target’s life. Usually the target is a kid or maybe a women who is pregnant surrounded by family.

“You might remember about twenty-years ago there was a scandal in a world bank, where their CEO, Frank Costa, disappeared?”

I nodded, making a few notes.

“So that was one of those times where the contract didn’t go quite as planned,” he cut into his steak and then continued the story.

He told me he was contacted by a representative of the board of the bank.

“Seems the board was concerned that Frank was siphoning off money to a competitor with the intent of defecting to that company once enough finances were in place,” he took another piece of steak into his mouth.

He said the board was concerned that if they went public with this, it would discredit their organization and their competitors could take advantage of their perceive incompetence. They felt the best course would be to have Frank eliminated quietly and then have the executive VP, Dennis Sturm, take over.

He gulped more wine, “Sturm was a pompous ass, but the board thought they could control him. I don’t care about politics, so I just went along with it.”

He went on to say he got a file that contained the details of Costa’s itinerary. The schedule during the week was hard to predict, with some set morning meetings, and others that were scattered across locations. The one consistency was a Sunday morning slot that wasn’t in the official calendar, but Costa’s security detail kept clear.

“It was weird. Costa had this space from about eight to eleven AM, every Sunday morning. His office didn’t have it down officially, so I wasn’t sure if he would have his security with him.

“I followed him from his condo to his meeting place the first Sunday. He drove alone into a dodgy neighbourhood to an old brownstone building that looked like a school or something. He parked in the back and went in and then came back out around two hours later.

“The next week, same thing. I decided to hang back at the building to see if anyone else came or went. I saw a couple of ladies leave about thirty minutes later, and then another couple show up.

“I tell ya, I didn’t know what was going on. I thought maybe he was having an affair, or maybe it was a brothel or something.  I did a bit of searching on the property and sure enough it was a school, but had been closed for at least five years.”

I watched as he cut another piece of meat. For the first time I noticed his right hand seemed oddly immobile, like it was artificial. The fingers moved in unison, grasping the fork.

He noticed me watching his hand and tried to hide it, “So, you’re wondering what happened next, I bet?”

“The fourth time I decided I could act. He never brought security, and it was early on Sunday, so no one would be around. The easy thing would be to wait in his car and take him out when he came back out.”

The Killer managed to get the vehicle codes from his contact on the board so got into the empty vehicle while Costa was in the building. He watched as Costa approached the car, withdrawing his gun to prepare himself.

“When Costa got in, he leaned back in the front seat and then looks in the rear view mirror.

“He stared at me, or really into me, ‘So today’s the day?’ he says.

“I was stunned, like he knew I’d been following him all along. I asked him how he knew.”

‘Things have been getting pretty tense in the company so I figured something was going to happen. I saw you following me two weeks ago. I know your reputation. Your real reputation, so it was just a matter of time.’

“You can imagine how much this freaked me out. I mean, if he knew, then my chances of succeeding were zilch! I asked him what the place was we were at.

“‘It’s a group home. It’s a private group home that takes care of people with severe mental disability.’

“Just then this little girl comes runnin’ out the back door towards his vehicle. She has a stuffed animal in her hand and is waving it at him.”

“‘You forgot to say bye to Felix, Daddy!’ she yells out.

“Turns out it’s his daughter. She’s got a problem so she stays there and he visits her every Sunday morning.  Frank tells me that he’s kept her a secret because she’s from his first marriage and if anyone found out, they could use it to embarrass him and the bank. No one knew about his first marriage. Frank had been moving all his bonus pay to the school. ‘If you kill me here, promise me that you will find a way to take care of my daughter.’

“Well that really put a wrench in the works!” the Killer said sitting back, “I mean, I know my business and it’s not my place to be second guessing a contract, but this just didn’t seem right.

“So I told him that if I wasn’t the one to do him, they’d send someone else. ‘I know,’ he says to me, ‘that’s why I am trusting you to take care of her.’

“I figured at that point it would be better for the girl to keep her real Papa so I came up with another idea.”

He leaned towards me and asked me to swear that I keep these details confidential.

“Of course,” I replied, “I told you I am using these stories for inspiration. No details will appear anywhere.”

He nodded and went on to tell me that he arranged to make Frank Costa ‘disappear’ by entering him into a protection ring. He and his daughter would be safe. The Killer took Costa’s vehicle and set it ablaze with pieces of a cadaver inside, which he got from a contract in the coroner’s office.

“I know it wasn’t the most elegant cover-up, but I figured the company wouldn’t push too hard to investigate. Frank and his daughter left the country for a while to let things cool off. They’re back now, living a different, but happy life.

“I got paid well for the job, but I don’t feel bad about screwing them over. Frank’s a good man. I found out later that someone in the company, probably Sturm, had framed Costa to discredit him, so the board got what they deserved.”

I was having a hard time piecing this all together, “But wasn’t Sturm named CEO,”

“Ah,” he said holding up his fork, “that takes us to another story!

“Are you sure you don’t want some more wine?  I drank almost half the bottle already,” he smiled tilting the bottle in my direction.

“Sure, just a little.”

#

You probably remember what a disaster Sturm was as CEO,” he began as he pushed his empty plate forward.

“The bank ended up doing worse after he took over, and he actually tried to blame Frank for the problems,” he laughed, “I mean Sturm was spending money on all the lavish golf trips and big parties and then blamed his predecessor when the board called him out!”

I was frantically making notes. I didn’t have this level of detail on the fall of the bank, and this could come in handy at some point. He mentioned, by name, many political leaders that were getting nervous because they could no longer trust the bank to manage their finances.

“It wasn’t surprising that they’d call me in to take care of it. He pissed off so many people, and probably bankrupted even more.  It was just a matter of time before he was going to be taken out.  People thought that if they aligned themselves with him, they would get the benefits, but all the ended up happening is that they got screwed and he got all the rewards.

“Believe me, when I got the message I was almost gonna do it for free!”

Something wasn’t right with my recollection, “I don’t remember Sturm being killed by a hitman.”

He laughed, “Of course not!”

He wiped his mouth and placed his serviette to the side of his plate, then sat back with the glass of wine in his left hand, “His wife was actually the person that contacted me. No big surprise I guess, because he was screwing around on her too.

“There was a big reception at his mansion for some foreign dignitaries that were closing a deal. She figured I could take him out when went to his office before the foreign contingent arrived.

“When I got into his office, he was sitting on his sofa watching a news feed about his business practices and was yelling at the announcer. I pulled out my gun just as his wife walked in.

“Sturm turns around and sees her and then me.”

“‘What the hell are you doing in here?’ he yelled at me. I had my face covered so I wouldn’t be identified

“‘He’s here to kill you sweetie,’ his wife walked towards me.

“Sturm bolts up, ‘What the hell!  Where are the guards? You can’t touch me! Do you know who I am?’

“I heard running outside the room, so I kept quiet and backed to my exit. Sturm was standing by the big window, so that was blocked. I figured the only option was through the bathroom, where I knew there as another window.

“The guards ran into the room.

“‘Kill them both,’ she says.

“I ran towards the bathroom as guards opened fire and managed to get inside just as a bullet flew past my head. Another hit the door.

“I heard Sturm yelling at his wife and yelling for more security.

“The window at the end of the bathroom as tall and narrow with heavy glass. It was probably too tight for me, but it was my only option. The guards were trying to bust down the door, so I had to move fast.

“I don’t know if it was adrenaline or what, but I ripped the sink out of the wall and threw it through the window. The bathroom door burst open just as I jumped out. The shattered glass cut into my leg and shoulder but I managed to squeeze through.

“My landing was not so graceful. When I jumped I snagged my foot on the window ledge and ended up falling down head first. I managed to get my right hand out in front of me, but smashed it into bricks that lined path. I heard the bones snap and tried to roll so I wouldn’t hit my face. Let’s just say I wouldn’t win any points for a perfect landing, but at least I am still handsome!

“Anyway, Sturm was still yelling for security so I figured his wife high tailed it out of there, which gave me time to get away. The guards were watching me from the bathroom window. I don’t understand why they didn’t follow me.

“I got to the front entrance where all the cars were parked. Sturm and his security team were coming out the front door with guns drawn. They were catching up with me when all of sudden this massive black SUV jumps the curb and speeds toward Sturm sending him flying and then backs over him when he lands on the ground.

“We were all standing there in shock.

“His wife stumbles out of the SUV holding a bottle of vodka.

“‘What the hell is everyone doing out here? The party’s inside’

She’s talking like she drank half the bottle,

“‘Oops, did I do that?’ she put her hand to her mouth. I give her credit, it was an amazing performance!

“Some of the security team gathered around her and hurried her into the house, while the rest tried to get Sturm’s body out from under the SUV.

“I took the opportunity to get the hell outta there before they started back at me.

“The story that came out later was that his wife got drunk and was out on a joy ride when she lost control of the SUV and accidentally hit and killed Sturm.

“She ended up taking over the company in honour of him, or at least that was her story.

“It was obvious I was set-up and that she was going let me take the blame. I guess this worked out well for her, at least for the short-term.

“She contacted me about a week later, threatening me, but I told her that I had the recordings of our conversations, including the failed hit in Sturm’s office. We agreed that we would leave each other alone.

“The irony of it all was that the bank was shut down just one month later, and all her assets seized.

“She disappeared, probably knocked off by one the politicians whose money they lost or stole.

“That was the last time I did anything so stupid for a job. I stopped using guns. Partly because they are too messy, and partly because my good hand was crushed.”

The Killer held up his right hand, flexing the fingers in unison.

“They had to fuse a few bones and so it’s basically just mitt. Great for patting myself on the head, but not for a gun. It also ended my piano playing career. I was lucky that I got to be a decent conductor and pulled together a good jazz orchestra. I get a lot out of conducting, but I tell ya, there’s nothing like playing an instrument yourself.”

He sighed, putting his hands together on the table.

“My mentor told me one time that the old bull doesn’t live so long because he is stronger than all the others, but because he’s smarter. From that point on, I used brains rather than brawn to do my jobs.”

#

In my most recent job, I got a call from the Secretary of the Global Council that a certain member, Evans, had become a threat to the council with some business about black mail. He insisted that there was no way to solve this other than to take him out,” the Killer placed the empty wine glass on the table.

“I had good contacts in the transportation department so I decided to go for a less dramatic solution than what’s usually done for hits. Besides, the Secretary wanted it to look like an accident.

“All the council members have autonomous vehicles rather than dedicated drivers, which made my job easier. Each vehicle is assigned uniquely to each councillor, but I got the encryption key for Evans’s vehicle from my contact. I had a gadget that I could use to take control of a vehicle remotely. It’s almost like a video game controller with a little screen that shows you what the driver sees, like a dashboard cam.

“Anyway, I saw that his car was leaving the Global Council compound, so I got into my own vehicle and followed at a distance.

“Now, before you ask, yes, I do have an autonomous vehicle but it’s completely off the grid. I worked with a technician from the transport department who pulls together her own cars.  She removed the communication hub from my vehicle, which helps the vehicle navigate and also tracks it in the central system.  She replaced it with one she was testing. Since it was a prototype it wasn’t connected to the main system, so no one could track me.

“I listened in on the conversation in Evans’s vehicle. He wanted to get some food on the way back to his home, which gave me a perfect opportunity.

“I sent the vehicle a message that there was a traffic problem on the Main Street and that they should take a detour to the road along the river.

“I got closer to him in my vehicle on the river road and disabled his connection to the central system by engaging the vehicle’s Stealth Mode. That’s used to give the council some privacy if they don’t want to be bothered. It’s also perfect for this!

“I connected to his vehicle and saw the dashboard view. Evans was getting agitated because he couldn’t disable the Stealth Mode. It also blocks other communications, so he couldn’t get a link on his smartphone either.

“It was easy from there. The river road has many exits to the docks. The one I saw coming up was close to an area where two flood water feeds entered, which was a nice bonus. You’ll see why in a second.

“I pulled his vehicle off the main road and on to the dock access road. I punched the accelerator to blow through the gate and the vehicle made a spectacular leap off the edge of the dock into the river. I popped open the doors too, so that the water would flow in. These vehicles float pretty well.

“I stopped near the edge of the dock and looked out at Evans. He managed to get out and was holding on to the side of the vehicle, which was still floating.  I think there must be an air pocket in the base or something ‘cause that’s all that was above water.

“Here’s the impressive part. The river was pretty still, but since I was close to the flood gates, I could give it a little boost. I called the Secretary and asked him to release water from the reservoirs through the flood gates. I could see Evans and heard him say something, but couldn’t quite hear it.

“It took about a minute before the water came. Let me tell you it was almost like a tidal wave! The water hit Evans and flipped him and his vehicle over and over, pushing it downstream.

“I was lucky enough to have stepped back from the edge of the dock before the wave hit, ‘cause it did a number on the dock too.

“I tossed the control device into the river and got back into my vehicle. I called the Secretary to let him know that all was well.

“I remember him saying that he hoped I had successful concert that night, which I found odd because he wasn’t usually so gracious.

“Anyway, I managed to get to the show about twenty minutes late. That was within the range of my usual behaviour so no one thought anything of it.

“I tell ya, that night, our performance was fantastic.”

#

The Killer stood, “I gotta take a leak. Be back in second.”

Despite his age, he still projected a formidable figure, tall with broad shoulders and no sign of the midriff spread that was usually inevitable with age.

I looked over my notes and swiped to my message app.

Almost done here. Send car now. There wont be much time after I act.

The reply came almost instantaneously

Did you get the confession?

Yes, he confessed to killing Evans. Will need to edit out section on the Secretary

OK, Already outside. Red truck in laneway. Waiter will guide you out the back.

OK, I typed.

I was grateful I was able to settle up with the waiter in advance. I gave him a pretty hefty tip for getting us the private booth and for agreeing to show me out the back way. It’s funny what some people will do for money.

I swiped back and reviewed my notes. If I was really a writer, this would be great stuff for a story!  Some of his tales were hard to believe, which probably makes the narrative even more fascinating. The old guy definitely lived a fascinating life. I almost felt bad that I would have to end it tonight. Of the twenty or so kills I did, this is one where I felt a little regret.

He walked up behind me and patted my shoulder, startling me.

“Did the waiter come by for our dessert order yet?”

I leaned back in my seat, looking up at him, “No, not yet. Did you actually save room for dessert?”

“Oh, yeah, always! You never know when it’s gonna be your last meal, so it’s better to make sure you get dessert when you can,” he laughed and started to sit, grabbing his serviette with his right hand but then dropping it under the table.

I bent to reach it.

“Don’t worry, I got it,” he grumbled as he ducked down to grab it, “bloody hand.”

The waiter appeared while the old man was still under the table trying to retrieve his serviette.

The waiter cleared is throat, “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” the old man rose awkwardly, “just dropped my damn napkin.”

“Ah, I see,” the waiter collected himself, “May I interest you in dessert?”

The old man sat up, “For sure! I’d love a slice of your famous cherry cheesecake!”

The waiter turned to me.

“I’ll just have a coffee please.”

“Certainly,” the waiter walked off, drawing the curtain to our dining area.

I looked at the old man. He was smiling at me. The wrinkles on his face emphasized the smile.

“So, do you think you have enough for your story?” he said.

“I think so. I’ll need to review my notes later and see how it fits into the full narrative.”

“Great, so we’re done with the interview part then?”

I closed my tablet and laid the stylus down next to it, “Almost, I have one more question for you.”

I leaned forward, sliding my right hand down to my leg, while keeping my left hand on the tablet, “With all the killings you’ve done, you must be a target yourself. How have you survived all these years?”

 “Mostly luck!” he let out a full laugh, “but a killer can always tell when there’s another killer in the room,” he ended with a grin.

I leaned slightly and moved my right hand to my boot.

I couldn’t feel the metal. The gun was not there. He saw my eyes widen in surprise.

 I felt my lower torso slam back against the chair, like a huge fist punched me. The first bullet cut through my thoracic spine, the second my descending aorta and the last cut through a cluster of intestine. I wasn’t completely sure at first if I was shot, but the slow searing pain in my legs from the spinal injury confirmed it.

I looked down to see the blood seeping from the fresh wounds. The hollow point bullets I use are perfect for this kind of job because they do maximal damage internally and don’t usually exit the body, leaving a mass of twisted shrapnel and few rifling marks to trace the bullet. I started slumping forward on to the table as a wave of nausea came.

“Sorry, kid” he placed the serviette on to the table with his left hand. My gun still wrapped within, “It’s not my time yet.”

I tried to speak, but fluids were coming up my esophagus and I couldn’t breath.

The waiter entered, pulling back the curtain to our room, “I see you are almost done.  I’ve put your cheesecake in a container and it will be at the front desk when you leave. Anything else I can do for you tonight?”

The Killer looked over at me. Although my vision was blurring, I thought he had a look of pain or sympathy on his face.

“Yeah, she’s gonna be like this for a while. Frank, can you give her something to speed it up? No point in her suffering.”

“Of course. I have a syringe with pentobarb ready. We’ll take care of the body afterwards.”

“You’re a good man, Frank,” the Killer stood and patted Frank’s shoulder, “did she tip you well?”

“Oh yes, she was very generous,” Frank walked towards me.

 I felt my body move as Frank raised my shoulders and injected the substance into neck. The sounds in the room were like I was underwater.

“Great,” the Killer straightened his tie, “hope your daughter doing is well.”

 I followed his silhouette as he rose to leave.

My body relaxed completely. Silence. Oddly, my last thought was pang of regret that I hadn’t touch my steak.

* * *

Randy McIntosh is an aspiring fiction writer and established neuroscientist studying brain health and aging at Baycrest Health Sciences, University of Toronto. He has an extensive scientific publication record on topics ranging from basic learning and memory functions in the brain, to analytics and computer modeling of brain networks. He has built an open-source brain modeling platform, TheVirtualBrain (http://thevirtualbrain.org), in partnership with two colleagues in Europe.  More recently, Randy has turned attention to science fiction, focusing on ideas around complexity and the brain, and how the notions of complex systems can be extended to bring a new perspective to science and society.  Randy is also an amateur musician, enjoying weekend gigs at a local café in Toronto, where and his wife reside.Lab website: https://armcintosh.comGoogle Scholar profile page: https://scholar.google.ca/citations?user=Ep3N640AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=sra

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