the traveling salesman

“You’ve heard of the amex black card, right? This is sort of like that.”

I nodded, and the man lifted the bottom of his tie, inspecting it briefly before brushing away an invisible piece of lint. Five minutes ago, he’d walked into my office dressed like the peak of 1960s Dean Martin masculinity and requested a meeting. No appointment, but my 1:30 had cancelled and I had some free time. But it still wasn’t clear exactly what he was selling, so I waited for him to continue.

“Your business has been quite successful. In fact, you just recently made your first million—”

I started to interrupt him but he held his hand up to quiet me. “We pay attention to these things, Mr. Pepper. Our little…well, consortium I guess you could call it—our little consortium contacts every business once it exceeds a particular revenue threshold. We offer certain covert services.”

He looked at me, but I waited him out. He smiled.

“You’ll understand we have to be rather careful about what it is we do, and what it is we say we do. Let’s just say we can—” he cleared his throat “—remove individuals. Enemies for instance.”

Remove people? Remove as in—”

“Yes, as in exactly that. And to demonstrate just how serious we are about getting your business, we will perform your first removal for free.”

All of the things people warned me about starting my own business flashed through my mind: dealing with byzantine payroll and tax laws, employee theft, just how much of my time it would take. No one had ever mentioned taking sales calls from murder incorporated, but maybe that’s the unspoken price of success. I took a deep breath. “For one thing,” I said, “this is absurd and can’t possibly be real. For a second thing, let’s just say it is real, for the sake of argument. How could I possibly trust you? Do people actually believe this?”

He nodded, clearly expecting the question. “Would you believe we have serviced no fewer than 400 of the Fortune 500 companies? That’s not an exaggeration. As for trusting us and our capabilities, let me tell you a story: a few years ago there were two major players in the powdered drink market: Kool-Aid and Wyler’s. Then old Fred Wyler, the company patriarch, died mysteriously. I won’t tell you how. But there’s a reason you don’t see Wyler’s on most grocery store shelves, and it’s that if you kill the head the body will die. How do you think these companies even get to be so large, without doing something about their competition? We provide a necessary service. Capitalistic enterprise demands it.”

Something about his manner, his matter-of-factness, made the whole thing plausible. “You’re still killing people for profit. Actually, maybe worse—you’re killing people for other people’s profit.”

He leaned forward, and put his elbows on the table. “I agree the whole thing is distasteful. Certainly I’d rather not be involved, and if only I didn’t have to be. But I want to tell you something important: I make this same offer—offer these same services—to every business owner I visit.”

He paused and stared at me. I met his eyes. “Every business, Mr. Pepper. Like, for instance…” He trailed off.

“Oh. … Oh! But that means…”

“Yes, it means exactly that. Remember Mr. Wyler’s unfortunate end. We wouldn’t want anything bad to happen. Now, what can we do for you, Mr. Pepper?”

I didn’t expect to be quasi-blackmailed into hiring a hitman, but nature is red in tooth and claw and only the strong survive. “I need you to take care of Augustus Pibb,” I said. “And call me Doctor.”

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