Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Assassin’s Secret

The world’s greatest assassin lives on a private island. That’s so much a given that you must have known it already. You’ve seen all those movies about master thieves, brilliant scammers, unflappable secret agents, dangerous people who live on their own tropical islands and must be lured into one last job. He was the source of the cliché. You will no doubt track down the earliest manifestations of the plot device, do the math, and croak, “Good Lord, he must be ancient!” He is. Indeed, he was Verne’s original model for Nemo. He had a submarine back then. He later sold it to East Tarawan separatists, less for the cash—as he is by now wealthy enough to rival the world’s most prosperous nations—than to get rid of what he by then considered a white elephant. You will no doubt realize that if he knew Verne he must be the oldest man who ever lived; it will only confuse you if we report that he’s actually number five, three of whom are still living, even if they have nothing to do with this story. Forget I even mentioned them.

He has a private supply of a medicinal herb that accounts for his longevity. It is actually quite easy to grow and you would be finding it on your supermarket shelves now if not for the strenuous weeding effort he undertakes, keeping the world supply down to one isolated ridge inside his island’s central volcano. It’s easier, he reasons, to be the world’s greatest assassin if there’s only one of him; that and the knowledge that he has firebombs set to incinerate the entire crop if anything ever happens to him, keeps the worldwide powers that be from ever trying to seize the bounty for themselves. Generations of the rich and influential have spent their lives coveting what he has, grown old and feeble, and finally crumbled into dust hoping that he’ll relent. Occasionally, just enough to keep their hopes up, he has, though none of the recipients have ever wound up ahead on the deal.

He limits his ambitions to success as the world’s greatest assassin because he’s never had any real interest in conquering the world. He could if he wanted to, and without years spent tearing up the landscape with infantry; he knows the throats that need slitting, the voices that need silencing, the parties that need only his support to rule in his stead. He could eliminate two or three hundred people, tops, and change the course of the millennium. That he hasn’t is because it’s not worth the effort. He lives on a fine island surrounded by turquoise waters, rich with coca and citrus, and possessed of scenic vistas capable of impressing even the most jaded multi-centenarian. He can bathe in a crystal waterfall, dine on foods he grows himself or has imported from the four corners of the Earth, wrestle with wild boars for relaxation, chat with the celebrated guests who he’s ordered to his side and who know they must be scintillating to survive the visit, do a Sudoku, then sleep on a bed so comfortable that for you or I a night’s stay would be like sleeping in zero-g on a satellite orbiting the Earth. He lives an idyllic existence, truly, one that would only be ruined by having to sit at a desk in some palace and delegate his iron rule over continents; and even as he limits his death-doling activities to less than an hour a day, he is wealthier every night than he was at dawn, so you could say that he’s developed a system that works for him.

He has a particular method he’s preferred of late, but he can rob any person of breath at any time using any device he chooses. For years he preferred the rapier. Then he became a master of pistols. For some time, he limited himself to bare hands, and then, because that was too easy, his index finger; a single touch to the base of the neck, accompanied with a certain vibration known only to him, that causes the cerebrum to explode. He knows the one place where a human being cannot survive a paper cut, and for a period of six months used it exclusively, as it’s between two of the smaller toes and part of the challenge was to persuade his targets to remove their shoes. On one very strange occasion he used a trained hummingbird, and on another he utilized a carefully constructed insult. What he doesn’t know about killing people is not worth knowing. He is also achingly aware that expertise on his level is gratuitous. The human animal is so easy to kill that any half-assed buffoon can do it, as an unconsidered crime of passion; any visit to a penitentiary will tell you that you don’t exactly need a genius. The world’s greatest assassin sometimes peruses tabloids to torture himself, the way one does, and whenever he reads about one moronic homicide or another he grimaces in the manner of a great painter who witnesses the art-gallery success of a guy who becomes a millionaire by throwing tomatoes at canvases. He respects his craft. He believes it an important craft. He hates the amateurs but thinks what the great painter does: What are you going to do?

Right now he is in a lazy phase and can kill people with a single stroke of his pen. It is a very special pen that has been imbued with some special features, and so he does not need to be in the same room or even on the same continent as the objects of his professional attention; all he has to do is draw a line through the target’s name, and know with absolute assurance that wherever in the world that unfortunate individual was, he has just rolled his eyes back and fallen over, dead. The mechanism behind this dark miracle takes up four locked rooms in the great assassin’s basement. Agents of numerous governments have broken in, over the years, slipped past corridors crowded with security systems, and ultimately dropped dead just as they drew near their prize. The world’s greatest assassin sleeps lightly, and has an exhaustive collection of all the world’s telephone directories.

The world’s greatest assassin doesn’t work for any particular government and is not beholden to any particular lobby. He doesn’t have to take any job if he doesn’t want it. He doesn’t suffer the angst you’ll find in some professional killers well below his station, who might be the best at their particular specialties but will, inevitably, at some point, be handed an assignment so dirty that it offends even their sensibilities, requiring them to turn against their employers and their colleagues and redeem themselves with bloody massacres of the legions they were working alongside earlier in the week. You wouldn’t think that was the kind of situation that came up often but, really, if it’s happened once, it’s happened a thousand times. Many’s the professional killer who’s been ordered to off the one person capable of getting past a conscience scabbed over by time and circumstance; many’s the savage criminal empire that collapsed in flames with its primary assassin staggering off into a fresh dawn, holding the hands of the eight-year-old girl who smiled at him in just the right way. You’ve likely heard the stories. They’re accurate. It happens all the time. The world’s greatest assassin is aware that this has been the downfall of any number of lesser artisans in his craft and has therefore structured his business and streamlined his methods so that he will never have to do what so often happens, sacrifice everything to save the one person he’d never kill. Since developing his current method and instituting his current rules, he has never had to face the pleading eyes of anybody he’s been asked to eliminate, or carry out any other contracts that he finds morally or aesthetically objectionable. He retains the right of refusal, and more, specifies that if he doesn’t approve, he will terminate those who seek to hire him instead. It is a profound measure of the respect people have for him that he still gets all the business he wants.

Every constituency that’s put him on retainer comes to him once every ninety days. They don’t all come on the same day. That would be silly, not to mention unpleasant, given how enthusiastically they target each other. It’s staggered. The great nations of the Earth get one day apiece: one for the United States, one for North Korea, one for Great Britain, and so on. Together, their business takes up about three weeks. The five weeks after that are followed by visits from the lesser nations. (You would be surprised how many people Belgium needs assassinated.) Then come the political parties and the various financial interests; and then the criminal organizations, who come to him for those particular circumstances where, for whatever reason, they can’t just do what they would normally do and slaughter each other with the people they’ve trained in-house. The Mafia, the Yakuza, the Russian Mob, the Cartels, Amblin Entertainment—they all visit, each sending a single representative, disgorged blinking and apprehensive from the bowels of whatever pleasure cruiser ties up in the bay, and then climbs the one hundred and thirty obsidian steps carved from verdant jungle to the polished floors of the great assassin’s foyer. They always arrive drenched with sweat, and not just because they tend to arrive at the height of the day, beneath a blinding tropical sky; after all, on some days, it’s raining. But they all know that they are about to ask a favor of the deadliest man who ever lived, and that he does not much cotton to having his time wasted.

It needs to be said that not everybody who arrives is a supplicant from the powerful and connected. The world’s greatest assassin is nothing if not democratic. Two weeks out of that ninety days go to ordinary, unremarkable people who he has identified as having persuasive reason to want another human being dead. They are told who has noticed them and they arrive no more fearful, no more hopeful, than those with the Presidents of nations on speed-dial. You will find among this group grim-faced young women sporting swollen jaws and black eyes, very small children who don’t seem to see the path before them so much as some other terrible sight that dominates their horizon regardless of what cardinal direction they face, convicts still clad in the uniforms of their particular penal institutions who lick their lips hungrily as they glance about furtively in search of some valuable to steal or more likely some black hole in which to hide, men with wild eyes and extravagant beards who never stop muttering to themselves even as they make their way up the slope—in short, random individuals from among the world’s billions, some of whom are here for good reasons and some of whom are here for reasons not so good, some of whom have come to their homicidal ambitions for wholly bleak and rational reasons, and some of whom are just insane. You will find among this group people who want their older siblings killed for sins committed in childhood, people who have had their lives torn apart by injustice and need the authors of all their suffering punished, people who only think their boss is a real asshole, people who believe conspiracy theories, and specialty publishers upset about the distribution of genre awards. They all arrive, clutching the one small bag they’ve been permitted to bring with them, and they all arrive mouthing the names of the one person or the five people or at times hundreds of people who, once dead by the whim of the world’s greatest assassin, will make their existence on this planet so much better.

One at a time, whether messenger from a king or envoy from crime syndicate or child soldier from one of the world’s worst places, they climb the stairs and find themselves at the foyer, a grand entranceway into the heart of the island’s central mountain, open to the elements but suspiciously clear of opportunistic insects or other fauna, that narrows as they penetrate deeper until it becomes a corridor to the rooms where they will spend the night. Their host, they are told, even if they have been here before, only holds office hours between eight and nine AM, local time. Tonight they will have their choice of meals, any diversions they request, including some that are certainly illegal wherever they come from, and a comfortable night’s sleep in a bed as fine as his own; tomorrow they will be ushered into his company to give him the name or names of the people they wish him to kill; and in between, all that will be asked of them is due consideration over whether this is really something they want.

The envoys from the powerful enjoy the amenities. They swim in the pool or they pore through the library or they inject themselves with substances from the recreational pharmacy the great assassin keeps stocked for visitors. Some request more intimate services from the staff. The great assassin keeps a small army of sex workers, male and female, on retainer. None of them consider themselves exploited. Theirs is a profession justly known for corrupting innocents and destroying souls, but they have all stumbled into a sure thing, here: a high salary, a six-month employment contract, the assurance that they will never have to agree to anything they wouldn’t have been happy to do anyway, followed by a pension that is more money than any of them ever expected to earn. If any of them are mistreated at any time, the offending client becomes the recipient of a hash-mark from the great assassin’s pen; and this is applied without mercy, even to visiting heads of state. There is a rather accomplished, famous man in the headlines right now. You know his name. You think him obnoxious, even evil. He has been to the great assassin’s island ten times. He has never gotten laid there. He complained about this a grand total of once. The great assassin, listening from his chair, merely raised an eyebrow. The figure you know sank into a strangled silence. You would feel a great satisfaction if you knew the name. Given how despicable he is, you would also wonder why the great assassin didn’t see fit to finish the job, but it’s only a matter of time. The Great Assassin hates entitled loudmouths.

The envoys from the powerful include many who have been here more than once, and so they use the amenities; the charity cases, the nobodies, the civilians who until recently did not know that the great assassin existed and who are still boggling over the strange turns their lives have taken, tend to more humble pursuits. A few wander the public areas with dazed expressions, like cave-dwellers transported to Asgard. And why wouldn’t they? Their humble lives have been interrupted, their helplessness in the face of perceived injustices rendered an instant fiction by the momentary gift of his attention. For some it is like the very planetary surface they stood on vanished beneath their feet, leaving a straight drop between them and the molten core far below. Of these, a number will decide that they do not want to bear the moral weight of murder by proxy, and will forego their meeting with the world’s greatest assassin, instead heading straight down to the dock to take the first boat out and return to a life where they will have to endure the target of their enmity, the way so many of us do. Still others will spend the evening restless, dwelling on the injustices they’ve suffered, the hatred that has deformed their lives without reason. If driven by revenge, as so many of them are, they will wear every minute like an additional burden upon their souls. They will tremble like people whose insides have become infested with ants. A few will erupt in rages. Some will be so vile in their behavior to everyone around them that it will be no surprise to anyone but themselves when their eyes roll back in their heads and they fall to the tiles, dead, while elsewhere in the great assassin’s fortress the master of the house will put his pen back in its holder and tell the servants that it’s okay to let him sleep late.

There was the case of one young woman from a modest background, who walked with her chin lowered and hands tightly clasped together over her collarbone, as if only that posture would prevent her heart from leaping out of her chest. She spoke only when spoken to and then in soft whispers, her very demeanor an apology for being present. When told that the great assassin would not be seeing her until the morning, she asked if there was a place where she could pray. She was told that the great assassin’s home contained no chapels but that there were terraces which offered a fine view of the setting sun. Shown to one of these, she stood at the waist-high wall and faced the glittering sea, her eyes tearing but her expression otherwise stony. She did not pray. Her lips moved, but it was not praying. She may have been speaking to the person whose name she intended on giving the great assassin, or some other party long dead; perhaps one was responsible for the other. As the sun set, a cooling breeze whipped her amber curls around her cheeks. Then she turned and, refusing the meal offered by a servant, went alone to bed. In the morning she went before the great assassin and told him that while she would not be a party to killing, not even when she hated the name she’d brought more than she loved life, she did have one lesser request that only he could grant. He asked her what she wanted, and she answered. It was not a murder. It was not any kind of attack on the party she’d come here to end. The world’s greatest assassin considered her request for a few seconds and said that yes, it was within his power. And for the first time a smile, broad and brilliant, bloomed on her face. It turned out that she was quite beautiful. But no one knows what that gift was or what ever happened to her, and nothing this unusual has ever happened again.

The great assassin’s house enforces a curfew. All guests and all staff are confined to their quarters after midnight. This is enforced. It is not enforced in the way that the great assassin could, if he wanted. People who have gotten lost on the property but are still rushing back to their rooms when the midnight hour approaches do not stiffen and fall down dead, on the last chime. Nor are they banished first thing in the morning and forbidden from returning. The great assassin does understand that people make mistakes. He also requires common consideration. He likes silence after midnight. If the offense is a willing one, he mentions it, disapprovingly, at the onset of the meeting. Because he is who he is and because he has the voice he has, some offenders collapse in terror. Others just babble apologies. It is a small thing. It is never a deciding factor in the great assassin’s treatment of them. It is just a data point, really; but when you are dealing with the world’s most prolific murderer of human beings, it is never wise to give him cause to regard your appearance with irritation. On the few occasions when his guests carried on so raucously past midnight that the sound penetrated the bowels of his home and made its way to the quicksilver pool on which his bed drifts, he lets them know that they have cost him sleep and that he is not very happy with them at all; that they should carefully consider their recent behavior before asking him anything at all. The wise ones have walked away. Money is a factor in many of his dealings, but so is courtesy. Of course, some of the ones who disturbed his rest and were then apprised of his displeasure do elect to deliver their petition anyway, and not all of these get to live out the day.

The representatives from the world governments tend to bring lists, which is within the rules. Typically, the blinking functionary, fatuous in his own certainty, will hand over a sizeable sheaf of paper with as many as a thousand names, sometimes arranged by alphabetical order and sometimes by preference. There is never any attached intelligence. The greatest assassin in the world does have his own sources of information, exhaustive to a degree that shames those who have spent their days huddled over wiretap transcripts in buildings with many offices. He will sigh and he will bend his attention to the tally before him, pen in hand, and often it is only a matter of a seconds before he draws a line through the first name that meets his mysterious criteria. Boom! Somewhere in the most crowded sector of a city where most malefactors can be confident in their own powers of anonymity, a wanted figure keels over. Another line is drawn. Boom! Another troublemaker hits the dust. Boom again, and again, as the world’s greatest assassin selects the names whose executions he deems defensible, and delivers unto them that which the petitioning government thinks they deserve. He notably skips names, too; often the same individuals whose names he passed over on previous visits, who turn up again and again because the people who make these lists feel that they have nothing to lose by hoping that he changes his mind. There are visits when no new names have been added and the lists end up being handed back to the petitioning government’s representative, practically unmarked; and there are also days when one particular name strikes him as so unwarranted that he turns to the last page and quietly draws a line through the signature of the individual who sent the lot for his consideration. Boom! Seven thousand miles away, down goes the head of another intelligence agency.

The crime syndicates and the corporations also bring lists, but they happen to be shorter; also riskier for the petitioners, as their enmity targets more people the world’s greatest assassin will not lower himself to eliminate. Their petitions go badly one time out of two, a key reason why the boardrooms of so many Wall Street banks, not to mention movie studios, have such dizzyingly rapid turnover.

But the mundane and the ordinary among the invited provide by far the most drama.

A few, the constitutionally irritated, have long tallies, including everybody who’s ever inconvenienced or offended them in their personal lives: the grade-school teachers who flunked them, the lust-objects who rejected them, the employers who at one time or another fired them for cause; also the neighbors who kept them awake with loud music, the dog-walkers who allowed Akitas to sully front lawns, the bankers who repossessed cars they never bothered to make payments on, the relatives whose birthday presents were not extravagant enough, everybody who ever told them to shut up; also, professional athletes whose subpar performances led to gambling losses, singers whose power ballads were overplayed to the point of madness, that asshole in the amber Montego who cut them off heading for the Glades Road exit on I-95. The world’s greatest assassin can peruse some entire lists of this sort and draw only one or two murderous lines before sending the petitioner away, in one fashion or another. He is sad because he knows that people who make lists like this will never be happy, and indeed will never be relieved by a tally of enemies that is now a few names shorter, because that tally is always growing, and sees fresh additions each and every day.

Others arrive bringing only one name. That proposition is more binary. The world’s greatest assassin will peer at the name at the center of the sheet of paper, above the signature that documents how the petitioner is willing to stake his or her own life in exchange for the pleasure of that enemy’s extinction. Because he has his own reliable sources of information, he knows at once why the petitioner wants this particular person gone. Perhaps he was an abuser, remembered from childhood. Perhaps he is an abuser now. Perhaps he’s a business rival. Sometimes it’s a famous name the petitioner has never met personally; among the many who have survived multiple recent requests to the assassin are a President of the United States, a ubiquitous pop star, and the showrunner of a science fiction TV series. In many, many cases they are ordinary people who imagine themselves unoffending, but who possess personal habits that have driven the petitioner to the point of madness: one of these, in recent times, being the woman four cubicles over who daily drenches herself in a scent that drifts through the office air like a miasma, summoning the mental image of entire bee colonies who have gorged themselves on violets and then perished en masse, giving off toxic fumes as they dissolved like staked vampires. The world’s greatest assassin sometimes winces at the received knowledge. He is not incapable of empathy. But he knows well the price of death, having paid the price many times himself, and in those cases where he considers the requests petty or unworthy he looks up and asks the petitioner a single question that he has learned is only a waste of time if asked of the representatives of the rich and powerful: “Are you sure?”

Most of the time they’re sure. Hatred can be such a monument. In which case, the world’s greatest assassin either draws his line through the name they’ve provided, or their own, settling the matter to everyone’s satisfaction.

Other times, their eyes falter and their chin trembles and they answer honestly. No, they confess, they’re not sure. In that case, he asks them if they’d like to talk about it, and surprising themselves, they agree to do just that; starting with halting voices, then gathering strength, often apologizing for how they feel even if it means the world to them. Some voluntarily arrive at a never mind. Others, the genuinely wounded, testify about their ravaged lives and reiterate that they cannot go on as long as the owner of the proffered name remains unpunished. Sometimes they have a case; sometimes they do not. Either way, the world’s greatest assassin thanks them for being so honest, and then makes his decision. He is just as likely to end the petitioner as he is to end the name on the petition, or, for that matter, to leave both breathing at the end of the day. On some of these days, he walks away from the encounter feeling good about himself, in a way that he rarely does, enjoying for one of the few times in his long life the knowledge that he has been an agent of healing. On others, the only sound from his quarters is weeping. He has lived long enough to know that some things in life are unfair, and that there is no alternative to just accepting them, even when we know they’re unfair.

There is one thing that has never happened, to date: not once, though the greatest assassin in the world has long known that it’s only a matter of time. Someday, perhaps tomorrow and perhaps a thousand years from now, he will go to the chamber where he receives all his current and potential clients, and will find one of the many ordinary people whose petitions provide him with both his greatest challenge and greatest job satisfaction. That petitioner will hand over his sheet of paper, and upon reading it the world’s greatest assassin will find the one thing he’s always dreaded, his own name. He will know at once why that name is written there: perhaps a dead parent, a dead child, a dead sibling, a loved one still alive who is shattered by grief at the loss of someone else erased by the assassin’s pen; perhaps a celebrated figure who the petitioner admired and venerated and who was taken because of the single-minded hatred of someone else; perhaps a corrupt system propped up by the great assassin’s elimination of the one person who might have been able to bring it down, on behalf of the powerful who would have preferred to let it stand. Or it might be none of those things. The figure standing before him might simply despise the great assassin for what he is, for what he’s done, for the ongoing loss of life that continues daily and perpetuates so much awfulness, and will forever, just because it’s within one man’s skill set. He might believe that the very words “great” and “assassin” form a terrible and tragic oxymoron, and he might not be impressed by the argument that if the great assassin were to die in the next five minutes, then all the lesser figures who ply his trade would simply have more work to share, the end result being that nothing will change for long. To that he might respond that evil will always be around and it would still be a good thing for one of its manifestations to go away, leaving the world incrementally cleaner in the fleeting interval before more flows in to fill the void.

This is the assassin’s great secret, the one thing he has never told a living soul.

When that happens, he has absolutely no idea what he’s going to do.

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Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro. A sixty-year old bearded white male showing extreme love for a cat of siamese ancestry.

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). The audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media) features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” In 2022 he came out with two collections, his The Author’s Wife Vs. The Giant Robot and his thirtieth book, A Touch of Strange. Adam lives in Florida with a pair of chaotic paladin cats.