The Reluctant Assassin - By Eoin Colfer

The Killing Chamber


There were two smudges in the shadows between the grandfather clock and the velvet drapes. One high and one low. Two pale thumbprints in a black night made darker still by blackout sheets behind the thick curtains and sackcloth tacked across the skylights.

The lower smudge was the face of a boy, soot blackened and slightly shivering inside the basement chamber. This was young Riley, brought this very night on his first killing as a test.

The upper smudge was the face of a man known to his employers as Albert Garrick, though the public had once known him by a different name. His stage name had been the Great Lombardi, and many years ago he had been the most celebrated illusionist in the West End, until during one performance he actually sawed his beautiful assistant in half. Garrick discovered on that night that he relished taking a life almost as much as he enjoyed the delighted applause from the stalls, and so the magician made a new career of assassination.

Garrick fixed his flat murderer’s eyes on Riley and gripped his shoulder, long bony fingers pressing through the fabric of the boy’s coat, pinching the nerves. He didn’t say a word but nodded once, a gesture heavy with reminder and implication.

Think back, said the inclined chin, to your lesson of this afternoon. Move silently as the Whitechapel fog and slide the blade in until your fingers sink into the wound.

Garrick had instructed Riley to haul a dog carcass from the Strand to their Holborn rooms and then practise his knife work on the suspended remains so he would be accustomed to the resistance of bone.

Novices have the mistaken impression that a sharp blade will slip in like a hot poker through wax, but it ain’t so. Sometimes even a master like myself can come up against bone and muscle, so be ready to lever down and force up. Remember that, boy. Lever down and force up. Use the bone itself as your fulcrum.

Garrick performed the move now with his long stiletto blade, tilting his wide, blackened forehead at Riley to make certain the boy took heed.

Riley nodded, then took the knife, palming the blade across to the other hand as he had been taught.

Garrick nudged Riley from the shadows towards the large four-poster bed, on which lay the nearly departed.

Nearly departed. This was one of Garrick’s witticisms.

Riley knew that he was being tested. This was a real killing, a fat purse paid in advance. Either he snuffed out his first candle or Albert Garrick would leave an extra corpse in this terrible, gloomy chamber and swipe himself a new apprentice from the gutters of London. It would pain him to do it, but Garrick would not see any other option. Riley must learn to do more than fry sausages and polish boots.

Riley swept his feet forward, one at a time, tracing a wide circle with his toes as he had been taught, searching for debris. It slowed his progress, but one crackle of discarded paper could be enough to awaken his intended victim. Riley saw in front of him the blade in his own hand, and he could hardly believe that he was here, about to commit the act that would damn him to hell.

When you have felt the power, you can take your place as my junior in the family business, Garrick would often say. P’raps we should have cards of business made up, eh, boy? Garrick and Son. Assassins for hire. We may be low, but we’re not cheap.

Then Garrick would laugh, and it was a dark, faraway noise that caused Riley’s nerves to throb and his stomach to heave.

Riley moved forward another pace; he could see no way out of it. The room seemed to close in around him.

I must kill this man or be killed myself. Riley’s head started to pound, till his hand shook and the blade almost slipped from his fingers.

Garrick was instantly at his side like a ghost, touching Riley’s elbow with one crooked icicle of a finger.

‘From dust thou art …’ He whispered so softly that the words might have been formed from the gusts of a draught.

‘And unto dust thou shalt return,’ mouthed Riley, completing the Biblical quote. Garrick’s favourite.

My own last rites, he’d told Riley one winter’s night as they looked out on Leicester Square from their booth in an Italian restaurant. The magician had polished off his second jug of bitter red wine and his gentleman’s