‘There are very few ways in which really old men can perform valuable service to benefit mankind,’ I tell the tall detective. The shorter one smiles an unpleasant smile, and I decide to tell them no more.
Margaret has died and enough time has passed to allow me, sometimes, to think of things other than my grief and my loneliness. So I go one grey morning to the payphone at the railway station and dial a long number, reading from a slip of paper that I have carried for many years in a slit in the lining of my wallet.
The device at the other end rings and rings and rings, and I am about to give up and replace the handset when there is a click and a voice says simply ‘Oui?’
‘This is M11,’ I say. ‘I think it is time.’ I replace the handset. A train has arrived at the platform outside the ticket office where the payphone stands, and for a few minutes, maybe four or five, a flood of passengers envelopes me, streaming impatiently past the ticket inspector at the gate and out into the carpark beyond. As the crowd thins, I follow them.
It has begun to drizzle, and I pull my cap down over my forehead and shrug the high collar of my jacket up, fastening the top button to keep it in place. I am in no hurry and I have a lot to think about, so I walk slowly home, taking the footbridge over the railway lines, up the hill past the school and down the other side. There is no point in hurrying. I can no longer manage speed.
‘What’s your connection with the victim?’ the tall one says. I look at him. He knows who the victim is. He knows how reviled the man was. He knows that I have only one connection with the victim: I am his executioner.
It is nearly three weeks before I get my assignment, which is about what I had expected. Twenty days, actually, giving me time to reflect on what I am about to embark on. I go to the library and find on my return that a thick brown envelope has been delivered to my post box. My pulse quickens as I realise what it must be: I don’t get a great deal of mail any more.
I am in no hurry to open it, though. I place it on the hall table and go slowly to my kitchen. Margaret’s kitchen, of course, but mine in abeyance. I boil a kettle and make a pot of tea. My heart is hammering and I try to slow it with the power of my mind, but nothing works. I refuse, though, to be hurried, and wait for the tea to brew before I sit at the table, pour myself a cup and finally fetch the package from the hall.
Well, there it is. My assignment. It is actually a newspaper, a week old, looking as though it had been well-used before being sent to me. I sip my tea and start reading it, looking for the clue. I find it on page fifteen, a small red dot placed like a full stop to a headline.
I had read a similar report in my local paper, though the photograph is different. He has been released after three years. He looks cocky and defiant as he strides from the prison gate to the waiting car, a sneering smile on his face as he pushes past the waiting photographers.
The report tells me very little. A paedophile, a repeat offender. Well, what had I expected? It could have been war criminal—we have plenty of those in this country, ageing but vile criminals still. Or maybe a persistent wife-beater, or even the corporate leader of a chemical conglomerate with a history of lethal contamination. There is no shortage of evil people evading justice time and time again, and it is only The Movement and one or two other organisations that take it upon themselves to administer the justice that governments refuse… that can right the wrongs.
The Committee is always very careful. They must never make a mistake. Ever. There must be no doubt whatsoever about their judgement. It must be universally recognised as correct. You can argue all you like about the sentence, but the guilt must always be self-evident. The shorter one, Villiers I think his name is, clearly believes that what he calls the justice system is good enough. We, the members of The Movement, know that it is woefully inadequate.
When Margaret and I had decided to join The Movement twenty
something years before, we knew exactly what we were doing. If Margaret had survived me, it would have been to her that this duty fell. Now it is for me to prepare.
He is a gregarious man, and that makes it so much easier. I discover his favourite bar, and watch him from the shadows. I follow him to the lavatory many times, and I know that I could take him there, silently, and no-one would know who, or why.
So, method: I am not a strong man, not any more. There was a time, trained by the army as a young man, when I could probably have killed him with my bare hands. Oh, how I wish that were possible now. Hands, or maybe a knife. With either of those it could be a silent murder, and I would escape to be of further service.
But at my age… my army training was carried out during the second world war, a time when such clandestine adventures were lauded, even rewarded. I expect you would have called me a hero then. But this exercise will rightly be called murder, though it is true that some, those like Margaret and myself, will record the act as one of heroism.
A knife, of course, would be easy to acquire, even to manufacture; and I know exactly where to use it to greatest effect: one doesn’t forget these things. But a knife requires not only courage, for you are necessarily in intimate proximity to your victim, but also considerable strength and agility if one is to carry out the act cleanly and swiftly.
The Committee requires this, of course. Our aim, always, is simply to remove evil, not to punish it.
But here’s the thing: I want his friends to be aware, to be afraid that it might happen to them, too. Just preventing him from damaging more children is no longer enough. So no stealth, no silent dispatch. The assassination must be violent, sudden and as widely publicised as possible.
I have never purchased an illegal gun. I had a German pistol for a while after the war, taken in action during a raid over on the other side. I had no ammunition for it, but I could have obtained some if I had wanted to. I kept it in a drawer as a memento, but soon realised that the war was not something I really wanted to remember. Not my part in it, anyway, grisly as it was. I handed it in to a police station after a couple of years, and got a receipt for it. I kept that receipt as being quite enough of a memento. Margaret smiled when she came across it between the pages of my diary for that year, and I smiled, too, at my childish actions.
‘So where did you get the gun?’ The tall one again, but I can tell that he has realised I will tell them nothing.
I believe that it is, in general, quite easy to purchase virtually any weapon you might set your mind on. There are a variety of methods, I am told, including sending for one by mail-order. Handguns, of course, are easiest because of their size. I am in the happy position of requiring only one handgun for just one job. I might require a handful of ammunition, some for practise and a few, say two or three for safety, for the job itself.
The only difficulty, in fact, will be to maintain anonymity during the purchase: in these days of ubiquitous terrorism, one does not want to alert the authorities with wide enquiries. So I did not do a search of the internet. Instead, I did a thorough search through my memory. My real memory, I mean.
I won’t bore you with the details. It involves a man I had met, what, twenty years before who, at that time, ran a tourist fishing business. Margaret and I had taken a holiday on the coast, and I had chosen to spend one day out on the reef with a party of amateur fishermen, all eager to catch a big one, a sailfish. The skipper, a loudmouthed braggart if ever there was one, told us all that he had been a gun-runner before setting up his business, and clearly didn’t care if we believed him or not.
So: I pay for a mailbox at a mail office far from my home locality and send him a letter asking if it is still possible to get hold of one of those items from his business before the fishing. I am not entirely surprised to receive no answer.
After considerable thought I take a train to our state capital, and within a few days discover that, at a tattooist studio above a newsagent in the very centre of the city it is possible to buy some marijuana. ‘For my pain,’ I say. ‘I have cancer.’ Heads nod in understanding. Such a band of ruffians, but I see compassion in their eyes.
So that when I talk of ending it all a few weeks later, I see exchanged glances and a nod or two, and in a very short time a pistol is produced. ‘In the mouth, pointing upwards,’ I am advised. The magazine is fully loaded, as is the price they demand. Still, very few of us are perfect. I doubt I will have much use for money in the future.
And so it is arranged: I have the means, I know the method. I
take the pistol to the mountains and walk slowly to a quiet spot far from anywhere. In a deep wooded valley I fire at a tree. The noise is alarming.
I fire a second shot with the barrel of the pistol no more than a centimetre from the tree. I don’t think it makes much difference.
‘Why didn’t you use a silencer?’ Villiers asks. ‘You could easily have got away with it.’ He nods at the tall one and smiles that unpleasant smile.
He doesn’t need to know.
And now there is little more to do. I write a brief note to my children, Eric and Samantha, telling them farewell. They do not need to know more. I feed the cat Barnum and leave rather more than usual just in case. He can enter and leave by the cat door, and there is water in the garden pond. I take a last look around the house. Our house. ‘Goodbye Margaret,’ I call, though I do not remember now if I called out, or just spoke the words to myself.
He will be there in the bar, sometime after nine pm. He always is, surrounded by the others. They talk in whispers and laugh a great deal. But after an hour he leaves them and goes to the lavatory. I follow him.
‘Did you talk to him? Did you tell him you were going to kill him?’ The tall one again. He does seem, almost, to possess some sort of understanding. Involuntarily, I give the smallest shake of my head. I had meant not to.
‘So you just walk in behind him, put your gun to the base of his head and pull the trigger, just like that?’
The mess is terrible, the low ceiling covered with grey and white matter, bone and far more blood that I had seen or dreamt of before. I too, I suppose, though I was unconscious of it, my ears ringing. He stands for a second or two before crumpling to my feet, the door behind me smashing open and a man, one of the barmen, I think, standing, wide-eyed in the doorway. I turn and look at him and he runs. I follow. I go back into the bar, sit down and finish my drink. I put the gun on the table in front of me and wait for the police.
Sentence carried out. Justice, at last, complete.