The Headhunter

The bar and restaurant had the quiet atmosphere of a single traveler’s place, although there were several families and groups scattered about. Something about the decor, the service, the muffled elevator music, all made it seem a sleepy place where the sleepless gather. Maybe there are special hotel restaurant ceiling spackles that inspire desperate, lonely drinking. Gary knew the kind of place well, although as a rule he did not travel for business. There were his occasional visits to his mother and his grandmother, and an occasional trip that had some sexual or self-serving motivation but where he usually ended up in a harmless stupor in a place like this.

He sat at the bar and ordered a whiskey sour. ESPN documented a nameless sport from TVs at both sides of the bar. An attractive waitress wandered the tables with a disconcerting stutter step, as if one leg was a bit shorter than the other, putting out the evening menu. The bartender had that distracted look that came from rote work, moving bottles, assessing quantities, and looking out at the waitress. “What’ll it be?” with the smooth sweep of a practiced hand placing a napkin.

Gary waited for a half hour, downing two whiskeys more out of nervous energy than any desire. The clientele was picking up, the noise almost rising to the level of a place with energy, but somehow not getting there. Gary was mad at himself for finding the opportunity to get stood up by a shit traveling salesman, who had obviously found himself a better offer. He fought the urge to stomp out, but was mentally already out the door when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

It surprised him so much he forgot to bat it away. “What?” he said.

“Bob Walton,” said the other gentleman, the other hand extended. “Gary?”

“Yeah,” he said, not sure that he just heard the same name he was expecting. “Are you the headhunter?”

The other man smiled and nodded in sympathy for the dunderhead question, and his whole manner had a certain crisp charm to it. Gary stared for a moment at the dandy, who even gave him a moment to take it all in. “Shall we?” Bob said, pointing toward the restaurant.

“Sure,” said Gary, a slur on the S escaping and giving him a brief scare that he was already out of control and hence likely to make a fool of himself. But he swung himself nimbly enough out of the chair, and gestured “after you.”

The hostess was waiting for them, a young lithesome woman with a chanteuse’s long red dress, complemented by her short gelled hair but somehow out of place with the nose ring. “Enjoy your dinner,” she said bestowing the menus, with a pouty voice that completed the ensemble.

Bob let himself stare at her returning to her station, a gesture that Gary recognized as an equalizer: we’re all just stray males here, nothing to fight over. Bob pulled up the menu and gave it a quick once over — the smile disappearing as he concentrated — and then he looked up and slowly brought the smile back.

“So Gary, do you enjoy your work?”

“Sure.” Gary was still looking, wondering how far down the list of steak cuts he could go.

“That’s good,” said Bob. “Very good. These days managers are looking for employees who’ll provide a stable workforce. What do you do in your spare time?”

“What?” Gary asked, looking at his counterpart with a quizzical expression.

“Your spare time, Gary. Employers are interested in seeing well-rounded employees, people with interests outside work. What are your interests?”

“I don’t know,” said Gary. The quizzing wasn’t what he had expected.

Bob didn’t answer, let him wrestle with the ridiculous statement himself.

“I mentor,” he said.

“You mentor? Really? That’s great, Gary. What organization are you with?”

“Not an organization, through my church.”

“Through your church, that’s fascinating, Gary. I bet there are a lot of kids there who could benefit from your mentoring.”

“That’s true,” he said. But he did specify: “Actually, I spend most of my time with one boy, the son of a good friend, a single mother.”

“You don’t say. That’s interesting, Gary. Don’t lose that thought. I want to get back to that, but let’s get this dinner going.”

Bob didn’t scrimp on his own dinner, so Gary went to the bottom of the steak list. Bob inquired about Gary’s preferences in wine, but Gary just shrugged, so Bob was forced to engage the server — a young man who looked as confused as he looked attentive — for recommendations and consideration. They settled on a Merlot, with the promise that there was a hefty Sauvignon if the Merlot disappointed.

Gary meanwhile wondered how much of his whiskey sour he left on the bar.

Bob seemed uncomfortable as they waited for the wine and hors d’oeuvres, as if this interregnum wasn’t supposed to be happening. Gary jumped in.

“What company do you work for?”

“Actually,” Bob said, suddenly more serious, “I’m under contract with the government. — But I am hunting heads for them, rest assured, Gary. You would be surprised by how much technology work goes on inside the government that you never hear the slightest thing about.”

“I’ll bet. The government, eh. Would I have to get some kind of background check?”

“Hmmm,” said Bob as he watched the hostess stroll again to her station. “Yes, probably, if you were to do the work I’ve been thinking about. That’s not a problem, is it, Gary?”

Gary looked through the window to a dark parking lot. “No, I suppose not.”

“Ah,” said Bob, anticipating the arrival of the wine and antipasti. But it was a couple minutes yet before the server made it to them, as he had a table before them to serve. Bob kept his eye on the service, with a couple of self-conscious glances at Gary — but whom he didn’t otherwise acknowledge. After sampling the wine and taking his assortment of light foods, Bob seemed to relax.

“Okay, Gary, eat up and enjoy.” They toasted with glasses, and ate in silence for a few minutes. Cheers.

“Look, Bob,” said Gary finally, “I can’t work for the government.”

“No?” said Bob with a light mock surprise. “Why do you say that, Gary? Don’t knock it before you try it. Regular hours, good benefits, the satisfaction of doing an important job.”

“I don’t believe — in government.”

“Everybody believes in government, Gary. Otherwise it’s chaos, anarchy. But you mean you want a smaller government? Laissez faire?”

“Sure, you gotta have a government. But it’s not me. I’m not the government type.”

“What’s the government type, Gary? You’re a church-going man who does volunteer work. That’s exactly the kind of ethic that we need in government. People for whom service to others is second nature. That’s the heart and soul of public service. My hat’s off to you, Gary.”

“Right,” said Gary dourly. He began to understand, and after a few moments said: “What is this, Bob? Are you really trying to recruit me? Or what?”

“Okay,” he said after a moment’s pause and with a widening smile. “You’re right. I’m not being fair. I know a lot more about you than you know about me. I am very familiar with the ____________________ Church and with your activities there. Even your affection for a certain single mother who attends that church –“

Gary’s mind switched from the irked and suspicious mindset that Bob had engendered to a flaring alarm and near panic. His thought: I’m sitting across the table from one of the men in black — albeit dressed in a forest green tweed jacket, over a carefully pressed dress shirt with a generous brown tie. He looked as intently as he could at the eyes facing him.

The dapper gentleman had been talking, but Gary couldn’t tell you what he had said — probably providing Gary with more evidence of his foreknowledge. Gary meanwhile was overwhelmed by the realization of exposure for Alice and Andrew, let alone for Mary and Bluthe, and felt his jaw trembling.

“So,” said the man, putting another fork full in his mouth, “there’s really not much about this case that I don’t know. And I’d like to put it to rest. You’d be willing to help me, right?”

“Sure,” Gary replied, “sure, yeah, I would.”

“That’s great,” Bob replied. “There are a few details we’ve got to discuss, but let’s not let the details spoil our dinner. Your filet is here.”

Gary didn’t contradict, although, as he ate, the rare meat evinced a disturbing animation beneath his knife and fork, which finally spoiled his appetite altogether.

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