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  • Writer's picturethejsingraham

Gatekeeper | "Strictly Business"


The Stafford London hotel was one of the more storied properties in the city, having held a place of distinction for over one hundred years. Its famed courtyard had been the scene of many a government, cultural, and celebrity gathering over that timeframe, but a meeting being held in its wine cellar this evening hosted a different level of clientele.

An interesting mix of power brokers, nefarious, honest, and somewhere in-between gathered under the vaulted ceiling of the famed Wine Cellar at the Stafford--built in the 17th century as a WWII air-raid shelter. The lighting tonight was dim, with an amber glow filling the space where some forty men and women stood around in pairs and small groups, deftly moving from conversations around immigration, tourism, business, and America.

For tonight's event, I opted to play the role of a proxy for a recent Italian heiress that served as the fifth most powerful person in a multinational conglomerate, specializing in engineering, healthcare, and energy.

In my preparation I figured Vedetta Ajello made an ideal cover, due to my being the reason she was a recent heiress. It also helped knowing that the woman was far more interested in spending money than being a part of actual business dealings.

Those outside of her home base were not privy to this knowledge, however.

Dressed in a classic two-button, blue squared, Aragona wool suit with a gold pocket square--looking and acting the part was easy. My years of training at La Tana took care of that. Keeping all conversation surface level, I made sure to be seen and to say enough to be noticed, without being memorable. The goal was to blend in to the background and observe the conversation partners of two people in attendance.

Arnold Stephenson, a famous American movie producer recently embroiled in scandal. And Harry Sylvester, a founding partner of one of the UK's most powerful criminal defense firms.

"So what brings you to our soiree this evening Mr.?"

"Bruno. Giovanni Bruno," I replied, pulling a glass of chardonnay from my lips to speak to a woman who had appeared in front of me.

I had noticed her sizing me up from the moment she walked in earlier. Her mannerisms were pedestrian, however, so I paid it no mind.

"Not much of the talking type are you?"

"My apologies," I slid in her direction with a grin. "I was attempting to remember which of the people here my boss wanted me to make sure I spoke with. Don't want to muck up the job you know?"

"I completely understand. Listen, you should not leave tonight without meeting my husband, Albert Patel. He is in IT acquisitions. Homegrown, but expanding quickly across Europe and into Asia. They cleared £2.68 billion last year," the woman said confidently. "He also uhh...travels a lot."

I gave her a look of greed when she mentioned her husband's expanding business. The sprinkled in look of thinly disguised lust, at the traveling line, accomplished what I needed it to. She was not only interested, but willing, and extremely eager.

Thanks for giving me options Mrs. Patel, I thought.

The woman clinked her glass against mine and walked over to join who I assumed was Albert Patel.

Grabbing a member of the waitstaff's attention, I swapped the subpar chardonnay for a glass of Grappa, an Italian brandy, and moved to a hi-top table against the wall in the middle of the room.

From my new location, I could better observe the entrance to the long space as well as both Stephenson and Sylvester. Following my impromptu meeting with Frederick Spooner yesterday, the owner of the contract on Sylvester, I accelerated the expiration date on the agreement. When I found out that both targets would be present at tonight's event it was settled.

They both die tonight.

"Ere, what's your business here lad? I haven't seen you before."

The server got my attention just as my space was invaded by an intentionally accusatory tone. When I stepped away from the table to retrieve my drink, I was able to clear its width to obtain a clear look at the floor. The Oxford's of the man with the gruff tone, had scuffed toes. Protection. From my invitation, I deduced that no security would be allowed in the actual cellar due to space restrictions which explained the heavier than normal foot traffic in the lobby and the front of the property.

But this guy was clearly a minder and was more than likely one of Harry Sylvester's men. Though Harry wasn't the richest person at this event, his clientele and role as a high-level intermediary easily made him the most important and powerful. My thoughts immediately went to re-scanning the room. My irritation with Spooner led me to not fully be in-tune to what I was trying to pull off tonight. Fuck!

"Buonasé apologies," I faked an embarrassed smile in the man's direction. "Good evening. I am here as a proxy for my client."

"I see. And who might that be eh?"

The man's tone was controlled but a touch more assertive. His eyes taking more interest in me now. Though he was probably an inch or two shorter than I was, he had the hands of a bare-knuckled fighter, with enlarged, knotty knuckles that probably felt like an Irish oak cudgel if he caught you square.

"I'm sorry, but I am not at liberty to say unless you are someone they may do business with in the future."

My grin was syrupy and obnoxious. My blood, wanted the room to be cleared of all other parties with the exception of this guy.

"Well, it appears as though we may have a problem," he returned.

Now his disposition started to turn increasingly hostile and his true accent began to surface. He sounded as though he may be from Edinburgh, Glasgow, or Galloway.

From my peripheral view, I noted a man standing beside Sylvester as another walked over and whispered something to him. Sylvester and the gent to his right looked in my direction, the relayer of the message did not.

A quick glance down at my glass, followed by holding it up to look at the light-colored liquid inside, allowed me to check the opposite corner of the space in the faint reflection. No movement. Just these three down here. Well that's good.

I settled with this new information as Sylvester headed in our direction.

"Harry! Just the man I wanted to see."

The voice of the man that had just entered the room, stole everyone's attention. It was so obnoxiously loud and cocksure. It didn't fit the room.

What the hell is he doing here?

Frederick Spooner stepped inside of the long room and walked in our direction. The look on his face could be described in no other way but overconfident, more than likely due to knowing his primary opposition would be dying in the very near future. When he reached the table he nodded at the fighter, then I, then turned his attention to Sylvester. Gone from my appearance from the other day were the hairpiece, the scar, the two open-faced silver teeth, beard, and contacts. In their place was a freshly lined low-top ceasar and matching goatee. Then there was my style of dress.

Replace a hoodie and jeans with a three thousand dollar Italian tailored suit and you've bought yourself at least a few moments of humanity among this ilk.

After Sylvester's appointed host for this get-together said a few words, the room fell back into hob nob status. Stephenson, the producer, had been speaking to Mrs. Patel and her husband who had been looking down at his cellular for a great deal of their back and forth. When the older man finished off his drink and exited the space with no parting gesture, I took that as my cue to move.

Walking over to where misses Patel and her husband were entertaining a recently elected Assemblywoman, I got my potential suitor's attention with a light graze of her waist from behind. She turned over her left shoulder with a far too comfortable bedroom disposition that let me know everything I needed to know about their union.

"I've never seen the Stafford wine cellar before, you should show me your favorite wine for...later," I said in a tone just barely loud enough for her to hear.

Without hesitation, the woman walked through the doors and I followed a brief moment later, watching her exaggerated stride down the hall. Maybe one hundred feet or so ahead of her, I saw Stephenson taking a phone call. A few beats after Mrs. Patel turned into the wine cellar, Stephenson ended his call and headed into the loo.

Seconds later, I was no more than a few feet inside of the cellar before the woman pulled me off to the side and launched her lips into mines.

Her tongue pushed the rich, buttery, oaky taste of the chardonnay she had been downing, deep into my mouth. When her hands began to roam more aggressively and her breathing teetered on animalistic, it gave me the in necessary to break free.

"I just wanted to get a glimpse of what to expect," I said through hooded eyelids. "Make sure your husband is on travel later tonight, unless he wants to hold your legs open for me."

Without uttering another word I pulled one of the bottles and headed up the hall toward the loo. Inside, I closed the door and locked it behind me as the seventy-nine-year-old washed his hands. Standing two sinks away, I dropped the bottle of wine, kicking it just before it reached the floor to prevent splatter as it broke against the hard marble floor.

"Clumsy bastard," I said aloud to myself.

The glass below the neck, shattered.

"I sure hope you weren't planning on entertaining a young lady with that," he grinned into the mirror at my reflection.

"No worries," I returned with a wry smile. "I prefer my women come ready and willing with no coercion. A night with me will get you on the big screen."

The phrase Arnold Stephenson was reported to have used on countless young starlets in Hollywood over four decades froze the septuagenarian's features in the mirror. The four deep, lightning-quick cuts across the man's hamstrings and the backs of both knees sent him on an awkward descent. The cry that started to escape was severed when his chin bounced violently off the polished granite edge of the sink, as he crumpled to the floor. The blow merely knocked the old man out. My subsequent severing of his carotid artery is what did him in.

After pulling the man into the far stall and closing the door, I tossed the large glass shard I

used out of the bathroom window into the alley. Texting a picture to my operator, I unlocked the door, grabbed a closed for cleaning sign and set it up outside of the door, turning the light off. Satisfied, I headed back down the hallway to the main room.

With one contract completed, the window for completing tonight's task became increasingly unpredictable, much like a great deal of this entire Frankenstein-like ordeal.

Mrs. Patel was staring daggers into me when I walked back in the room. So was Sylvester's overaggressive guard dog who was trying and failing to blend into the crowd now that I was back in his line of sight. I made sure to fraternize with a few different groups of people that I had not spoken to previously for appearance's sake, even if I would likely never see any of them ever again for their sake. Thirty minutes passed before I made my way over to where Spooner was standing in a corner slurping down oysters, in the most disgusting manner imaginable.

"Good evening sir, I don't believe we've spoken," I said, standing across the hi-top table from him. "Giovanni Bruno. Proxy for Signora Vedetta Ajello."

"Right," he returned. "I believe I saw you when I came in. Frederick Spooner. I'm in the financing industry."

"This has been a very beneficial gathering put on by Mr. Sylvester's firm no?" I asked.

"This kiss the ring fest? I guess." When Spooner realized he was unfamiliar with whom he was speaking with he attempted to clean up the statement. "I mean, it's good to uh, network with like-minded business people. He gets all of the credit for bringing us together."

The entire time the annoying man was droning on, I had the server order a fresh drink for him plus two more. I had no clue what it was and frankly didn't care. It was a means to an end. When the server brought the drinks out, Spooner thanked me and clinked glasses before slurping down two more oysters. When he dropped his head back, two clear capsules with a crushed white substance went in the extra glass that I pulled off the table and swished around quickly at my side, allowing it to fully dissolve.

"Thanks for the quick back and forth. I think I'm about to head to the other end of the room and chat up Mr. Patel's wife for a bit."

I held up the glass in her direction subtly and she returned the favor.

"Wait this isn't my glass," I said putting the tainted one down on the table and picking up my own. "Hey, you know what? Why don't you send this one over to Sylvester as a sign of good faith. The best part, it didn't even cost you anything."

I winked at him after patting him on the back and headed towards Mrs. Patel.

"That's a good idea. Thanks!"

I stood and chatted with the woman while keeping an eye on Spooner. When a small contingent of people headed over to his table, Spooner waved the closest server over and had her deliver the drink to Sylvester. The attorney turned in the financier's direction, raised the glass, and nodded. He placed it down on the table in front of him, but never let it go. Good enough for me.

Moving around the table, I stood shoulder to shoulder with the very attractive almond-hued woman with the long french braid and suspect taste in wine. Every inappropriate quip she lobbed was returned with an equally lewd retort that seemed to push her to try and best the last one.

Then, the commotion started and crescendoed with reckless abandon.

Harry Sylvester fell to the floor grasping at his chest. His attack dog had watched him look at what was left of the drink before falling backward. The entire room became a mixture of shock and concern, with most crowding the scene to get a closer look.

"Hey, you! Where did this drink come from?" One of Sylvester's men said to the server whose arm he was gripping with an intense ferocity. "Mr. Sylvester only drinks from his personal cask while at events and Arturo has not put in a single request for it all evening," he roared.

The woman turned and pointed at Spooner who was ten feet away from the scene, surrounded by other attendees. He stared back noticeably confused and shaken by what had just transpired. Those feelings quickly gave way to a new one however, terror, due to the hardened looks being sent his way. One of Sylvester's other guards who had been kneeling on the floor checking on his boss stood to his feet abruptly with the attorney's unlocked cellphone in his hand. There was a text that had just come in that read...

Night, night

...with a picture of Spooner holding up his own drink in the direction of Harry Sylvester some five minutes prior.

The overabundance of tetrodotoxin extracted from blue-ringed octopus venom, worked quickly, causing Sylvester to take his last breath less than two minutes after he hit the floor. The second guard who had moved by the door to prevent anyone from exiting swiftly navigated through the crowd of people and ushered Spooner to the back of the room by his neck and shoulder.

"Wait, wait! I don't understand!" The man cried out. "What's happening?"

"Everyone out!" Yelled the bare-knuckled fighter.

In times of crisis, businesspersons negotiated. Masterminds formulated and orchestrated. Grunts acted on impulse. In moments like these, you never wanted a grunt holding the keys.

The remainder of the patrons rushed through the door as two more of Sylvester's men brushed by them from the lobby, headed to the main room. These two both donned earwigs, all but assuring they were armed.

In the hallway I sent one last message to my operator, instructing him to initiate the 5-day contingency auto-deduction mechanism in my contract with Spooner. Afterward, I blended in with the remaining crowd and stealthily made my way upstairs.

Before my fingers could fully wrap around either ornate handle on the heavy wood and glass front door, a single shot rang out from the lower annals of the hotel.

Outside, I breathed in the cool night air, looked left, then right, then headed toward Saint James Place. Once here, I walked on at an even pace with my hands in my pockets towards the A4. Continuing to walk down the block, I eventually came up on the matte black Audi A8 from yesterday parked on Little Saint James Street in an alcove. Tonight there was no driver, but the automatic key fob was placed three inches inside of the tailpipe, hidden from view.

Pressing the push start, I raced up the road towards Picadilly, made a right, and exited the area on the way into Soho. Cracking open a miniature Coca-Cola, I poured a third of it out the window as I drove. One by one, I peeled off and dropped all ten false fingerprints into the can, listening to the acid eat away at them.

As I drove, Mozart's “Papagena, Papageno” from the Magic Flute filled the car's cabin, laying the evening's soundtrack for my post-kill unwind.

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