The weather channel was wrong the night Spencer and Rodney were set to have dinner together. As a man in a rather large overcoat approached the Wok n’ Roll, overcast winds threatened to tear down the delicate neon sign of the fast-casual Chinese joint. Technically at this point, the restaurant was only sometimes Wok n’ Roll because of the flickering sign making it infamous among the local crowd as ok Roll. The man came up to the door of the restaurant with both hands tightly holding onto three salt shakers in his pockets to keep them from rattling.
“Spencer?” said another man waiting by the entrance.
“Yeah, that’s me, and you must be Rodney?” replied the man in the overcoat.
The two looked like they could have been related to each other standing there with their square jaws and dark eyes. Instinctually, each man assessed the other, and upon realizing they were the same height and build, wondered if they could take the other in a fight should things go south. Rodney smiled at Spencer, noting the wrinkles in his face and deciding he would win. The salt-and-pepper speckled hair on Spencer’s head matched the pattern of wrinkles across his forehead and contrasted heavily with Rodney’s cropped brown hair.
The introductions were brief past a handshake as the two took their seats inside the restaurant. An uncomfortable silence followed as the unlikely pair realized they hadn’t prepped any conversation for their meeting set up by Rodney’s wife.
“I hear the food here is pretty good,” Rodney said to lighten the air.
“Same here, I hear it’s killer,” Spencer monotonously added.
Rodney’s wife was a nurse at the local hospital while her husband was a self-proclaimed entrepreneur, admittedly without a patent but desperately searching for one between late nights watching TV on the couch and frequent naps on the futon. All of his ideas were just “better” versions of things that already existed, but then again, no one really knows how to make a better Post-It note.
But Rodney also had other plans throughout the day, including the occasional visit from his “extremely friendly” neighbor. Rodney’s wife could sense something was wrong by the chipper smile he always had plastered on whenever he talked about her and the sighs whenever his wife walked in. She tried to ignore the obvious at first, but years of neglect led her to hire Spencer.
Spencer was a much simpler man with a much simpler career. He was a hitman. Rodney’s wife set up their meeting under the guise of setting up her husband with a job in Spencer’s company as a favor to an old friend. Years of spending time with his neighbor made him completely uninterested in her – he never even questioned how his wife could be friends with a man who was obviously much older than her.
“You don’t want to take your coat off. It’s pretty hot in here, no?”
“Oh no that’s alright, I get chilly pretty easily. Brittle bones at this age and all.”
“I see, well thanks for coming out tonight. I appreciate you giving me a job, I know my wife does too. To be honest though, I don’t know much about your field. Could you tell me more about it?”
“Of course.” Spencer grinned at his dinner partner as he took a sip of his drink.
“It’s really simple actually. You get to meet a lot of people and help them transition during big changes in their lives. It’s kind of like consulting. You work independently, lots of room for creativity, and flexible job hours too as you can probably tell by me being here on a Wednesday night. It’s not too tough though, people’s problems are pretty fleeting. Usually, it’s just a squabble with a loved one, so you could say I do a lot of conflict resolution.”
“That sounds right up my alley,” Rodney replied, his eyes lighting up upon hearing the benefits. Flexible job hours meant more opportunity for neighborly visits and the chance to get his wife off his back for all the time he spent on the couch.
“I think I can do that pretty well. I would say I’m definitely a people person.
“Good! You definitely have to know how to talk to people in this industry. But of course, our connections with clients don’t last all too long. If we do our jobs right, we actually never hear from them again. The most satisfied ones leave an extra tip, but after that, I imagine they just live comfortably. We don’t typically get repeat customers, which is a good thing.”
“That makes sense. Fine by me too, I tend to get things right the first time.”
“Perfect, sounds like you’ll be a natural,” replied Spencer, amused by his companion’s sheer confidence.
The waiter circled back with their entrees next, suspiciously eyeing the overcoat Spencer refused to take off. Two orders of Kung Pao chicken rested on the table, freshly steaming from the microwave.
“If you’ll excuse me for a minute, I just have to run to the bathroom,” Rodney interjected as the waiter bid them a good meal.
“Please go ahead, I’ll wait.”
Spencer kept the smile on his face, wondering why all jobs couldn’t go this smoothly. As the waiter left eyeshot, he pulled out one of the salt shakers and switched it with the one on the table before anyone could notice. He added just a few sprinkles of the cyanide on the lo mein, enough to kill but evade detection at the same time. He grinned at Rodney again as he came back to his seat, knowing that in just a few hours when they would return to their homes, the job was as good as done. A nice tip the next morning from the wife would seal the deal and that month’s rent would be paid.
“Hmmm, I think the kitchen might have messed up my order. I wanted rice instead of noodles as my side. Should be a quick fix though, I’ll just holler for the waiter.”
“Oh, are you sure? I could’ve sworn you said lo mein, and besides, that looks pretty good to me anyway.” Spencer’s eyes widened as the waiter started to approach their table, desperately trying to change Rodney’s mind.
“Yeah, I’m just trying to watch my weight. Brown rice would be much better for me.”
Spencer watched in concealed horror as the plate went back to the kitchen. “No problem, they’ll just throw it out and I have the other stuff to try again,” he thought.
The waiter came back with a look of consternation on his face that Rodney was completely oblivious to. The pair proceeded to eat their meal in silence, wondering whether the other would renew the conversation.
“So about the job, how independent is the work?” Rodney said to break the tension.
“Extremely independent. Most of the time, you’re working on your own, traveling a lot, and meeting clients privately. It’s a good setup honestly, you get to be pretty creative in how you carry out the resolution.”
“I’m glad, I think large teams and too many voices slow down the speed of a project too.”
From the corner of the restaurant, a patron began to start wheezing and complained about how hard it was getting to breathe. Immediately, Spencer turned his head and realized that she also had a plate of Kung Pao chicken with lo mein. It dawned on him that this was the first mistake in his career, choosing a dingy take-out place for the job just to save money on rent. Of course they would just give the same reheated plate to someone else. Rodney noticed the strained look on Spencer’s face and followed his gaze to the distressed woman.
“Oh man, she’s starting to look real bad.”
“It must be the heat in here. They really need to turn on the AC or something. It’s getting hard for me to breathe in here too.
“Yeah, that might be it. Still, it looks like her face is turning red.”
The woman’s companion grabbed her by the waist, slapped a few dollar bills on the table, and helped her out of the restaurant as onlookers watched the scene unfold. Spencer was just relieved that the next few ugly moments wouldn’t unfold in front of an audience. With a job still left to do, he quickly refocused his thoughts on how to use the second salt shaker.
“Should I grab us two more drinks from their self-serve?”
“Sounds good to me, another round never hurt!”
Rodney looked like the type of person that wouldn’t turn down another drink. Spencer lumbered over to the fridge and shouted at Rodney to see what he wanted.
“I’ll just have what you’re having!”
“Jesus Christ, he doesn’t let up trying to bungle everything,” Spencer bitterly muttered under his breath. He reached for two beers with one hand and the salt shaker in his pocket with the other. Using the overcoat for cover, he opened both bottles and sprinkled the ricin powder into Rodney’s drink. Satisfied with his work, he walked back over to the table and presented the bottle to his date.
“Here, I even opened it for us.”
“You’re too kind, I think this might just be the recipe for a great partnership.”
“Cheers to that.”
Both men raised their bottles toward the center of the table and Spencer waited patiently for the last clink before he could end their meeting. Before that could happen, Rodney stopped midway and inspected the bottle with both hands with a look of concern taking over his face.
“Y’know, I think this one might be a little warm. I’ll just go pick up another one.”
Spencer ran his hands through his hair and stared stunned at Rodney.
“It was definitely cold when I picked it out. Should be cool enough I’d say between grabbing it and walking here,” Spencer chuckled nervously.
“Oh that’s alright, I’m sure they won’t mind. I’ll just get another and give this one back to the waiter. Maybe he’ll enjoy it,” Rodney answered while laughing at his own joke.
Sure enough, the waiter came by even more annoyed and grabbed the bottle before placing a new one forcefully on the table, almost as if he meant to break it. Still, Rodney didn’t notice. The two proceeded to pick up where they left off, sharing a toast over Kung Pao chicken about their new working relationship. No later than two minutes from the clink of their bottles, the waiter keeled over the side of the door while line cooks rushed one after the other out of the kitchen to inspect. The waiter was dizzy and nauseous, prompting the manager to relieve him for the night. Customers watched in silence as he stumbled out of the restaurant and out of sight before returning to their meals. A few whispers started emanating in the room about the likelihood of indigestion the next morning.
“Funny, he seemed about ready to drop too,” Rodney commented as soon as the waiter exited.
“Yeah… must be really hot back there in the kitchen,” Spencer replied without looking at him. He was growing increasingly impatient with the trajectory of the night.
“What am I supposed to do at this point? Strangle him in front of everyone?” Spencer thought to himself.
“Should we order dessert to cap off the night?” Rodney asked, pulling Spencer out of his trance.
“Yeah why not, I have a deadly craving for sweets,” Spencer answered back, clutching the last salt shaker with all his strength.
A new waiter was sent over with the dessert menu, this one much more distressed than bothered. Spencer was about to order his dessert before Rodney beat him to it, already engaging the server before Spencer could fully look at the menu.
“We’ll split a tempura cheesecake,” Rodney said while simultaneously turning to face Spencer. “It’ll be my treat.”
At this point in the night, Spencer felt a sneaking suspicion that Rodney knew who he was and that he was toying with him the entire night. That was the only explanation for each consecutive folly in that god-forsaken restaurant. Either his guest was a devilish mastermind or the worst kind of person to take to dinner.
The tempura cheesecake came out of the kitchen just as fast as the entrees, leaving no doubt in Spencer’s mind that he would never come back to this restaurant again. Rodney’s mouth practically started watering as the dessert was placed before them but he restrained himself from digging in before his companion. Spencer eyed Rodney suspiciously before he attempted to distract him by knocking over a glass of water. As Rodney peered at the ground where bits of cracked glass coated the ground like dust, Spencer leaned forward and sprinkled the last bits of poison on Rodney’s side of the dessert. In one motion, he placed the salt shaker back in his pocket, making a mental note to only eat from his side.
While the two ate the tempura cheesecake, Spencer finally untensed his shoulders after a long night of toiling. Frustrated by the amount of money he was losing that night, Spencer beckoned the waiter to bring the check while he debated charging Rodney’s wife a premium for an especially stupid client. The waiter approached with the check and dropped two already-cracked fortune cookies on the table, a fitting end for an underwhelming dining experience. Spencer’s heart dropped looking at the check as he made mental calculations to determine how much money he would need to save for rent. Meanwhile, Rodney had already proceeded to crack his fortune cookie and read the slip of paper.
“A new opportunity is about to present itself! Sounds like I got the job” he declared loudly.
“That’s fitting. Hopefully, I get lucky too.”
Although not a fan of fortune cookies, Spencer bit the side of it and chewed the dry, brittle shell before reading his own fortune.
“You should expect a big life change coming up soon. Well, I guess that’s vague enough,” Spencer sighed while Rodney continued at the tempura cheesecake.
Unbeknownst to Spencer who was busy filling out the check, Rodney noticed what seemed to be extra sprinkles of sugar on his side of the dessert. Refusing to break his diet, he surreptitiously rotated the plate and enjoyed the portion without the extra calories. Spencer hailed the waiter for the last time as he scrawled a neat signature on the receipt, took one last bite of the tempura cheesecake, and proceeded to rise from the table as a signal to end the night.
“I don’t know about you, but this is exactly what I needed,” Rodney shared with a hearty laugh outside the door.
“Agreed, I look forward to working together. And don’t be nervous about starting, everyone messes up once in a while, but you’ll learn the more jobs you do.
“Noted. I’m looking forward to it.”
Later that night, Spencer collapsed on his bed and unpacked the events that had just unfolded. Two unnecessary casualties would undoubtedly look suspicious but could always be blamed on improper food preparation. He clenched his teeth thinking about the Wok n’ Roll, wanting to see its windows shuttered. As he dwelled on that thought, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his fortune again, considering whether it could actually come true. Just as he unfurled the slip of paper, his stomach felt as though it was lit on fire. The pain emanating from his stomach nearly made Spencer gasp and rush to the bathroom where he tumbled to his knees right before the toilet. Between dry heaves, he flung curses at no one in particular but distinctly mentioned Rodney and the greasy Kung Pao chicken. Before he shut his eyes to concentrate on anything but the needles poking his abdomen, Spencer considered one final thought.
“Is this how it ends, done in by cheap takeout and fried cheesecake? No, it’s probably just indigestion.”