Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Sideshow

by Georgy A. Kolotov


They usually will tell you -- the same "they" who know it all, who talk to strangers and who are, in short, the world's only authority on everything -- that the only certain way to tell a good craftsman is by his attention to the details. This is correct, as far as it goes. There is another vital point, however. And that is his greed, of course. Yes, I know. Greed is supposed to be a dirty word. Call it tightfistedness then, or even a sense of justice. Whatever the words, the meaning remains unchanged. A good craftsman wants to get paid, he wants the best rates for his services, and he gets really irate if someone tries to cheat him out of his fee.

So, naturally, I made Chug pay me in advance. A dead man's IOU is never a sure bet. The families have an annoying tendency to investigate, which leads to all sorts of unpleasantness. And don't even start me on the lawyers -- were it not against my policy to kill outside a contract, I'd exterminate the whole breed.

As for the special case of Chug -- Chugdorle Kalgzana, actually, but he urged me to go first name on him, and I acceded -- the circumstances of his departure would have made it not just difficult but rather impossible to collect a debt. He paid quite willingly, though. Not a tightwad, that one. Except with his wife, of course. But then, I can't blame him.

What Chug had was something between a death wish, a revenge scenario and a ghoulish sense of humor. He also had some sort of an outlandish disease, I never found out what, and it was killing him. It had started a long time before we met, and by then had progressed enough for him to know his days were numbered. A friend of a friend of a trusted servant recommended that he seek me out. Not my usual style these days -- but the name of an eccentric millionaire carried some weight and, as it happened, I had some time to kill. That -- and the two elves who thought they could swindle me out of a certain gem I sought. While waiting for them to show up, I did not have much on my mind, and meeting Chug promised to be a diverting experience.

There was a tavern just outside the town where he used to come more or less incognito. That is to say, he never told anyone his name, kept his face in shadow, and paid well. In return, the owner of the worthy establishment, as well as his clients, closed their eyes and kept their tongues to themselves. Me, I never fail to do some preliminary research on my clients. Knowing his habits, it was easy to suggest that the tavern was where we should meet to discuss our mutual business. He was momentarily baffled, but then laughed heartily. The laugh turned into a nasty cough, he clutched his throat, managed a gulp or two of air, and, massaging his chest, slowly returned to normalcy. It was then that I saw how little he would value his life. A man rarely enjoys having to be constantly on guard, living in constant fear of pain. Death would seem an easy way out.

I don't really understand why he never turned to the healing priests. True, they like their clients to be poor and pure of thought. Chug's money, however, should have been more than enough of an incentive for them to forgo the traditional limitations. I doubt he was too proud to ask for such kind of help. I can only speculate that his falling out with the approved lifestyle was greater than I knew, and the illness itself was a result of a nasty curse. But I dislike speculations, and besides, this has no impact on my story.

His demands were simple: he was not to suffer in any way, and his wife was to be blamed for his untimely demise. I did not insist on a written contract -- Chug was a gentleman, and besides, such a document could hardly be binding before the law.

There were only two things I required him to do. One, as mentioned above, was that he paid me the whole sum before I undertook any necessary steps. To this he readily agreed. Not only because money was a trifling issue to him, but also thanks to my reputation for carrying out the clients' wishes to the letter.

My second requirement was that he himself would not skip town until the date and place of the execution. I was to let him know at least six hours in advance when I wished to perform the deed, and he was to get there in time. However laughable the matter may seem, I had had it up to here with having to chase after clients who changed their minds -- and the matter with the two elves made it difficult, if not impossible, for me to do so. Chug agreed to the second condition even more eagerly than to the first one. He even suggested breaking the protocol and introducing me to his wife. I declined -- but the proposition set me thinking. Before long I realized just how I could easily double the take and have fun with what could have remained a rather dull manslaughter.

####

Despite any rumors to the contrary, there are no actual rules of conduct forbidding an assassin to approach a potential client. There are formalities to be observed, of course. Human relationships being what they are, setting about hiring a criminal -- especially a murderer -- can be as complex as a courting ritual. For instance, all the vagueness in the hints and the responses notwithstanding, there are certain key words and phrases which, uttered at certain points of negotiations, are as bonding and bounding as a written contract. More so, actually, for not only can a contract be broken, but it even includes a statement of rules for the breaking. Not so in an illicit verbal agreement. Ours is a harsh world. You either fork out or conk out.

It has happened more than once that I have been forced to seek employment, and therefore had to get in touch with a prospective customer. People are shy about this business, and, more often than not, after a few minutes' exchange, I have had to declare an error and leave. The words "my mistake" are the key to this: after they have been spoken, there can be no further negotiation between the two parties concerning the considered problem. It is polite, if not exactly demanded, that one of them withdraws from the other's company.

Having completed the negotiation with Chug, I was interested in viewing the victim in her routine circumstances. However measured and numbered his weeks were, he was not going to expire in a day or two -- or so he informed me firmly and decisively. Therefore, I had the necessary time to make myself familiar with the scenery for the little drama I was going to set up.

Chug's manor was, unsurprisingly, in the prosperous part of the town. It was not overly large, and the garden surrounding it in no way dwarfed those of his neighbors. Obviously, he went out of his way not to impress anyone with either his riches or his taste in architecture. Of the first, he had enough. Of the second, nothing.

The horrendous building sat, squatting like an ugly toad, in the middle of an excessively bright lawn decorated with too many cute little statues, bright flowerbeds and ornamental ponds seething with disgustingly endearing goldfish. The mansion itself consisted of three non-symmetric parts, each of a different girth and height, each built of huge blocks and coated with glaze of different colors. The windows ranged in size from a hole in the wall to a gaping portal through which a dining table could be fitted, and their placement was in no way related to the building's storeys. The roofs of the three parts were different, as well -- one pointed and shingled, the other rounded and tiled, and the one in the middle flat and fitted for family outings during the warmer seasons. I felt, at the same time, offended by the glaring lack of elegance and intrigued that anyone should choose to actually live in this monstrosity. The only positive thing that can be said about it is that it was less provocative and abusive to the eye and the landscape than the rest of the estates in the neighborhood.

####

In a hidden forest glade not far from the town, known to me and to not many others, grew a rare bush called the darkrose. It's very beautiful, quite exuberant, gives out a rich sweet scent. It also has a very useful property of being poisonous. Its thorns are covered in a syrupy sap that can cause mild skin irritation. Introducing it into blood, however, leads to death by suffocation, heart failure, cerebral hemorrhage or one of several other, equally unpleasant, ways. It's quite unpredictable, and much sought after among the more artistic practitioners of my vocation. The more so, because it's likely to baffle both magical and mundane investigators: not being magical, the poison cannot be traced by the standard arcane procedures; and the toxins themselves soon dissolve in the cadaver.

A few hours' hike eased my way into the manor and allowed simple access to Chug's wife. Judging by her obscene garden, I had no doubt she would be thrilled to add to it a singular and strictly outlawed plant. More importantly, I hoped not only to see her and gauge her character, but also to convey a message. A gift directly connected to poisonous vegetation was one of the accepted openings an assassin can offer a potential client.

Placed in any human court, Elaine Kalgzana would not look out of place. She was regal, attractive and more spiteful than any three brothel-matrons I could name. She was the most gorgeous shrew I have ever met; the bitch in her was not tempered but multiplied by the physical attraction any healthy male could not help but experience.

Within the first ten minutes of the interview she managed to insult five servants, slander her husband's business and personal habits, indicate a flaw in the quality of the offered bush -- and all that without losing a smile, or using a sole improper word. I had to admire her language skills along with her beauty. I also realized just what kind of a hell her husband must have been going through in this marriage -- even discounting his debilitating malady.

As far as I could find out, their marriage was something of a scandal. Elaine was at least twenty years younger than Chug, a nobody with no past and nothing to offer except a pretty face, a fine figure and a sharp mind for business. I had not known him long enough to make any surmise as to which of these qualities, or a combination thereof, caused him to ask for her hand. In any case, whatever attraction had ever been between them, it had evaporated faster than morning dew. Her behavior, which technically could be called infidelity, was something approaching it from the other end: sometimes, when the mood so took her, she was unfaithful to her current lover -- with her husband. Truth be told, Chug was not exactly a paragon of fidelity himself. And, as demanded by the customs of their class, they both had sense enough to keep their affairs out of the light.

Her desire to increase their mutual, for the time being, fortune was highly beneficial for both. His was to start risky ventures, while she managed the steady projects and took over the new ones as soon as they reached maturity. Not being a fool, he had no illusions about Elaine's motives -- at least, none that outlasted the first month -- but this state of things suited both. Then he got ill, and she saw her chance to get very rich very quickly. Or it could have been the other way around. As I said, I never gave much thought to the source of his illness.

Whatever the case, this incredible alluring, if foul of character, woman was anything but a fool. She understood immediately the meaning of my gift. What she failed to realize was that her husband has already hired me. She could think only in straight or, at most, in curving lines, never in circles. Therefore, smart though she definitely was, a worthy opponent she was not. This was exactly what I had hoped for.

It took her less than an hour to request that I help her get rid of her husband. Her only condition was that, whatever I do to him, she would not go to jail for it. In fact, the negotiation should not have taken even that long, but the infernal harridan wasted more than half of the time haggling over the darkrose.

####

Things moved fairly quickly thereafter. My next stop was a small miscellany shop on the outskirts of town. Some raking through the stationery resulted in my having acquired several pieces of parchment, a vial of ink and a few quills -- everything of the kind Chug usually used for his private correspondence. No, I could not have taken them from the manor -- do I look like a common thief to you? One must have standards.

I returned to the inn, locked and barred the door to my room and spent some time in quiet contemplation. The particular manner of what I was about to perform required the wording to be laid out in advance. A mistake could result in more pain for me than strictly necessary -- something I did not really cherish.

Having composed the letter in my head, I continued with the preparations. I removed my shirt, cleaned out a small table, covered it with a wine-rubbed cloth and started laying out the supplies. There were several things I needed, besides the writing equipment. A dagger, which I sharpened, heated in the fireplace and cooled in wine. A jug of hot water to keep the blood flowing. A clean roll of wool for staunching the blood. A jar with an ointment, which could cause any practicing healer to turn green with envy.

Finally, all was in readiness. I washed my hands and arms up to the elbows, then, tensing with an anticipation of pain, I swiftly cut both my wrists and, regulating the pour of blood with hot water and wool, started writing.

The opening paragraph described the obvious -- that he, Chugdorle Kalgzana, was committing suicide and, according to the customs of his society stratum (I did not use such fancy words in the letter), he used the last minutes of his life to compose a pre-mortem note.

He -- or rather, I in his stead -- then went on to accusing Elaine of real and imaginary sins and transgressions. Here I had some fun -- no, to be honest, enjoyed myself immensely -- while imagining what horrors I could really have brought on him if my only obligation lay to his wife. There was, of course, absolutely no proof to substantiate the allegations -- and absolutely no way to refute them. I stopped myself from getting carried away altogether, though: however unhinged a man becomes during the Sacred Transition, the letter itself had to be believable, at least in the eyes of the investigators.

Somewhere around the last third of the note I noticed that the blood smears made the last few words pretty much unreadable, then tried to put myself in Chug's shoes and considered the following question: would he perceive the problem in his agitated state? And if so, would he re-write the letter from scratch? Writing a suicide note after the deed's done is not an easy task, and few of them are ever finished; not many have the required stamina and presence of mind. Starting the process anew because of a blotch? I didn't think so.

I took care to make my hand shake more and more as the closing passage of the letter appeared on the parchment. In it, I made it clear that Elaine had hired an assassin to do Chug in, described an episode where he had escaped the previous attempt by a very narrow margin, and implored that her behavior be thoroughly investigated. I decided to conclude with his decision to do away with this unbearable life in order to confound the man she had hired. All in all, it was a highly emotional letter -- angry, self-pitying, resentful -- just the kind a would-be suicide would leave while the blood of his life was staining his table.

There was no need for me to forge Chug's signature. He would sign and seal the letter for me. The wording was such that he would never guess the second part of my plan. Did I feel sorry for him? A little maybe -- he was a likeable sort of bloke -- but no more than a client, in any case.

I dropped the pen into its holder and, while the ink and the blood on the parchment were drying, applied a drop of the precious ointment to my savaged wrists. The effect was immediate -- I could feel the blood vessels closing and the muscle tissue regenerating. In a few short moments I felt invigorated and quite ready to continue this, albeit rather provincial, but nevertheless entertaining, adventure.

####

I sent a message to both Chug and Elaine, telling both to remain in their rooms that night. When I came in he jumped and pumped my hand, as if I was an old friend, instead of his murderer. The situation was not so absurd, though, since he really was eager to part ways with life, and paid me to do it in the most satisfying way possible. I gave him the letter, of which he heartily approved, nearly hooting with laughter, then doubling with pain when a cough spasm overtook him. Coming to himself, he signed the note, dripped some wax from a candle and pressed a signet with his crest.

"You will arrange everything, of course?" he asked rather matter-of-factly.

"Of course. Now then, if you will please accompany me to the bathroom, we will proceed."

"Uh… I know we already discussed this, but I would like to stress…"

"Don't worry; you won't feel a thing," I assured him.

And he didn't. One drop of the concoction from a small vial behind his ear left him completely without feeling from the neck down. I decided to stop by and thank Lecretia next time my travels took me to Khar. Although it beats me who thinks of such weird recipes. As far as I knew, this one included two types of secretions of a red scorpion, mixed with liquefied (however she did that) intestines of a fire toad. The stuff was not cheap, but Chug's payment was generous; he, so to speak, could afford a luxurious death.

Sitting naked in a large bath filled with warm water, he looked emaciated, slightly scared, but mostly pleased. Though he could not speak, it was obvious he was conscious. It took several minutes to arrange his limbs in the water, put a small table over him, set the parchment, writing equipment and sealing wax on the table, then I stepped back and observed the overall effect. It was good, quite realistic. Now for the finishing touches.

I slashed open his wrists, then waited until enough blood has dribbled on the table and the letter. The whole idea was to give impression of a suicide to any but the most observant -- or informed -- investigator. And, while I doubted this town could offer anything in the observant detectives area, informed was a different matter altogether. Information may come from many sources.

After about a quarter of an hour, I took another tiny vial out of my pocket. It contained the darkrose sap, which I, after putting on my gloves, dribbled into Chug's wounds. The blood continued to flow, and the poison took a bit longer than I anticipated, but in the end his eyes flew open, his throat constricted, a huge spasm shook him bodily, and it was over.

I left the bathroom and, stepping softly and keeping to the shadows, went to Elaine's bedroom. She got my message and was waiting eagerly for me. I took her to see her husband. She paled some, but got hold of herself. That woman had impressive willpower and no mistake -- sure, she had hired a murderer to do away with her husband, but talking about death is not the same as looking it straight in the face.

We returned to her room, where she paid me my fee. She even tried to haggle about paying only half now, and the remainder once the noise over Chug's death was over. Her temerity was shocking. I held out, of course, and in the end she coughed up the dough, however reluctantly. I left the manor and went to get some sleep. Neither of my two contracts was finished, as yet.

####

After a good night's rest, I went out for breakfast. Chug's suicide has already become the talk of the town. The disconsolate widow -- quite an actress, that one -- ran down to the mayor's residence first thing in the morning, and collapsed on the doorstep, hiccupping with hysterical sobs. His letter, as I learned later, she had hidden in the chest with old clothing -- a natural thing to do but quite amateurish. It would have been better for her to make a clean breast of it with the investigator. (I have anticipated such a move, as well, so it would not have done her any good; but were she not up against me, it could have helped). Instead, she went out of her way to act innocently -- something that always arouses a detective's interest. Especially since her prior behavior had not been that of a model wife.

The guardsman in charge of the investigation, a mellow but tenacious sergeant going by the name of Kearly, was not too bright. He did not have to be. It was quite enough that he had his suspicions. Things were not going well for Elaine. The darkrose, which she boldly and rather stupidly planted behind the house, was not enough of evidence in and of itself. Her relationship with the diseased, while scandalous, was only suspicious when weighed against her earsplitting grief. Even the two added together would not have proved enough of an incentive for the mayor to order a complete search of the premises.

An anonymous note appeared, as if by magic, tacked to the mayor's cabinet while he left to attend to a call of nature. It was not too hard getting it there. A servant among servants, a secretary among secretaries, I did not have to strain my acting abilities anywhere near too hard to enter and leave the room unnoticed.

The note hinted at a connection between Elaine's infidelity and the drastic innovation in her shrubbery. It also brought into question the absence of a suicide note -- something unheard of in their immediate society. Finally, it suggested that Chug's death came conveniently close, timing-wise, to the stunningly successful return of a trading expedition he funded. The connection was real, as far as such thing go -- in other words, enough for the mayor's imagination to fill the gaps. In truth it was so much smoke, and I put it in only for my personal entertainment; playing games with the authorities is one of my rare weaknesses, and the one I am the least proud of. Anyway, the mayor swallowed it completely -- hook, line and sinker -- without stopping to ask where the note had come from. Kearly might have asked, but he was on a need-to-know basis. He was simply ordered to search the Kalgzanas' place for the missing missive.

Kearly, who had waited for that order quite eagerly, went about the task like a ravenous boar rooting into last year's acorns. He ousted the residents from the manor, and searched the house and the garden in his infuriating manner -- slow but inexorable. In the meantime, he also questioned the widow and the servants. His inquiries were polite, dogged and unhurried. He had good memory and kept his notes in order. He had the ability, irreplaceable in his line of work, to make the obvious connections and discard the vague ideas until they could be tested. It took him and his underlings about fifteen hours to find Chug's letter.

The mayor was not too popular with the town's populace -- something about corruption, injustice, favoritism, the usual stuff. He decided to use this case as a sort of a grand slam. He ordered Elaine incarcerated until her crime, or at least her participation in one, could be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt. At this point I found my hand forced; I had to intervene immediately. After all, however the woman had treated her husband, she had paid me fair and square. I had to save her from jail.

At least, that's what she thought when she hired me. Had Kearly detached only a token force to guard her on the way to the station, as I hoped he would, I could have even done that. As it was, I would have been up against six watchmen -- not an impossible task but a strenuous one. Since I had to spend at least another day in the town (the elves I was waiting for not having arrived yet), I had no intention to raise my profile unnecessarily. Especially as the contract did not really require me to.

What I actually had to do was prevent her from going to jail, and that was a different tune to dance to. The route from the Town Hall to the station passed by an abandoned house. I sat there, biding my time, and when the picturesque group -- which had grown by then, what with gapers, idlers, beggars and pickpockets -- was close enough, fired a crossbow bolt at Elaine's neck.

####

I have always favored the metal-tipped projectiles. Later I was told it nearly decapitated the widow all in one go. Amusing though it might have been to watch, I could not allow myself to dawdle: low profile considerations again. Besides, there is nothing really comical in watchmen covered with fresh arterial blood, when you stop to think about it. Which people rarely do. They just laugh. People can be strange that way.

I left the abandoned building by the back door, then circled around and returned to the inn. All in all, it took me no more than an hour and a half to arrange and act out this last installment of my adventure. If one can call it that.

No, I was not much disappointed. I had made some money, had some fun planning the two seemingly clashing contracts, and if, instead of one death it ended in two, well, no big deal. I doubted Chug would have objected, even if he had been alive.

But something -- call it a professional pride -- told me it could have gone better. I told it to shut the hell up in there, and it did. After all, this was only a casual escapade, an appetizer before the main dish. Once the elves came to town the fun would really begin.

THE END


© 2006, 2008 Georgy A. Kolotov

Bio: Georgy A. Kolotov is a software engineer who works for a major electronics company (rhymes with hamstrung) in Israel. He loves reading and writing fantasy and "other things" ("The Master Assassin's Handbook of Obscure Poisons" and "Crossbows For Fun And Profit", perhaps?).

E-mail: Georgy A. Kolotov

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