Though the lake was rather unusual, the city itself was quite typical given the time and setting in which this story took place: it had about thirty thousand inhabitants, most of whom were either peasants or struggling tradesmen, and it was dirty, cluttered, crime-ridden, and rat-infested. Sanitation belonged only to the rich, and those were relatively few.
Speaking of the rich, they were as a rule quite fond of private clubs. The most exclusive (and expensive) of these was known as the Bonshire Club, which was situated in a very old and musty but lavishly furnished building in the Merchants' Quarter. The Bonshire Club was a favorite meeting place for two particularly rich and well-bred men by the name of Count Orville Rumford III and Sir Stanley Weatherhearst. These two gentlemen were very old, Sir Stanley having thick white hair and beard and the Count having no hair at all, and their outstanding feature was their predilection for making singular wagers.
"Crime used to be a crime, but I'd swear that it has become an honorable profession," said the Count to Sir Stanley one evening over tea. "The Thieves' Quarter isn't so much a quarter as two thirds. Assassins flourish. Why, it isn't safe to possess money anymore. Soon it won't even be respectable!"
"Indeed!" replied Sir Stanley. "My bodyguards have demanded triple wages. And try to get your property insured! But I hear say that the situation is not much better at the Capital: not only cannot His Majesty enforce his laws, but he actually lives in constant fear that some rich Baron will hire a master assassin to kill him. Imagine that! You'd think that any monarch worth his salt could bloody well defend himself."
"That's not entirely true. There are assassins even here in Devil's Basin who could do in His Royal Highness without a second thought. Take Gregory Marshfield, for example: he's an expert, he is. Nobody knows his real name, and very few know even his face."
"Is that so? What do you know of him?"
"I hear that he has a bright, friendly, familiar sort of appearance; makes you feel right at home with him at your side, as if you'd been friends for years. And that's how he works: he cultivates your acquaintance, studies your habits, and becomes the best of friends. It's only a matter of days before he's in your complete confidence. One evening he'll be alone with you, in seemingly total innocence, and will cheerfully slit your throat and disappear. Nobody ever could describe him sufficiently to the Reeve to get him arrested. What is more, I hear it is his wont to work on several jobs at the same time."
"My word, it sounds as if I might end up including him in my will even as he kills me! I'd wager that such an assassin could not only murder the King, but become Chamberlain in the process. Surely he must be the greatest assassin in this part of the country."
"On the other hand there's the 'Night Stalker,' the 'nameless death' whose name nobody even wants to know. He lives in the dark -- totally invisible, I hear. Fear is his weapon, and ice is his trademark. Exactly forty-eight hours before your assassination, he places a large piece of ice on your pillow before you retire for bed. You can't sleep after that! Nobody knows where he gets the ice, but if you see it you know that you only have two days to live."
"Sounds like a rather formidable chap. Is there then no escape from him?"
"None -- not even if you leave town. He'll stalk you like a black panther (hence his name), and he always wins. Not even the King could hope to avoid his icy blade. In fact, I'd wager that he is the best assassin in these parts. My dear Stanley, I do believe that we have a potential bet on our hands."
"What? Surely you don't mean having the King assassinated?"
"Not at all. There's a far simpler means of determining which assassin is superior: hire each to kill the other."
"Splendid! But we must play it by the Code -- no one must have an unfair advantage."
"Simple enough: each of us will hire his own champion assassin, and we will do it at exactly the same time."
"But how do we contact them?"
"Marshfield may be hired through the Guild. The 'Night Stalker' has his own contact: Barnabus Grumwich, who may be found at the Crown and Cudgel. For how much do you think the bet should be?"
"Oh, fifty thousand should be sufficient. But tell me: would not the Guild object to this?"
"Certainly not. The 'Night Stalker' is an independent, and the Guild would love to see such competition removed. Of course, that will not happen."
"We'll see about that. But how do you happen to know so much about the assassins?"
"To tell you the truth, I've had occasion to use their services a number of times."
The Count and Sir Stanley laughed together for a long, long time.
It took several days to do just that, but once he finished them and collected his cut from the Guild, he began to case the Crown and Cudgel, waiting for the appearance of Barnabus Grumwich. That evening, as he sat in a corner booth sipping a pint of dark brew [the tavern was quite disreputable, but it nonetheless served the best bitter in the shire], Gregory keenly eyed a large, one-armed, one-eyed man who was talking at the bar with an obviously rich merchant.
The merchant was evidently quite angry, and some of his phrases which drifted to Gregory through the smoke and hub-bub included "I don't care if he has another job" and "tell him that I'll pay him double whatever he's getting." But Barnabus Grumwich was adamant, and eventually the merchant gave up and left in disgust.
It's now or never, thought Gregory as he approached the bar. "Bartender, give this man whatever he's drinking on me, please." He turned to face Barnabus. "Good evening, I'm pleased to meet you at last -- am I correct in understanding that your employer is currently engaged in another assignment?"
"What's it to you?"
"Come now, I don't mean anything by it -- it's merely that I couldn't help but admire your remarkably patient manner with the gentleman who has just departed. Obviously you have an excellent head for maintaining good business relations. Ah, here's your drink. Bartender, could you refill mine, please? Thank you."
Within an hour, Gregory and Barnabus were the best of friends. During that hour, Gregory formulated a plan: he would find out the identity of the "Night Stalker's" latest victim and kill the assassin while he's killing his victim (and consequently off-guard). Simplicity itself! Besides, thought Gregory, nobody makes friends with "the nameless death." "Speaking of your employer, my friend," said Gregory, "I don't suppose you could tell me of his latest assignment? Just out of curiosity, of course."
"Well, I don't know if I should tell you," replied Barnabus. "My boss likes to keep things secret, you know."
"I understand. Naturally, I have the greatest respect for your employer's wishes. Bartender, another round please, thank you."
Barnabus lowered his voice. "I'll tell you what -- just between the two of us, my boss has been hired to do in Gregory Marshfield."
Holy Kingdom! "You mean the assassin?"
"The very same. Do you know of him?"
"Only that he's so stupid you could hire him to commit suicide!"
"Ssh! Keep quiet about it."
Gregory smiled nervously. Act natural, old chap. "An assassin hired to kill an assassin. How fascinating. And who is the esteemed patron?"
"You wouldn't believe it."
"Count Orville Rumford."
Gregory whistled in astonishment. "Doesn't that beat all? Well, my friend, I have very much enjoyed talking with you, but it's getting close to ten, and I wish to hit the sack early tonight. Bartender, another drink for my friend, thank you, and how much do I owe you?"
My God, I nearly lost control of my bodily functions in there, thought Gregory as he walked down the filthy street. Something smells rotten about this, all right: the Count and Sir Stanley are the best of friends. There must be a connection. I'd better sleep on it and come up with a solution fast, before I end up tasting a sample of the "Night Stalker's" wares.
Eventually he reached the old but comfortable boarding house on the edge of town where he lived. He entered the house and began to climb the stairs to his room, but was accosted by his landlady.
"Oh, Mr. Lewis," she said, "could you possibly join us in a game of whist?"
"I'd love to, Mrs. Morley," he replied, "but I have had a most exhausting evening, and I feel that bed is the best thing for me right now. Perhaps tomorrow night."
"If you like, I'll bring up some hot milk..."
"Thank you. I'd appreciate that."
Gregory continued up the stairs and entered his room. On his pillow was a large chunk of ice.
The merchant blanched and left the Crown and Cudgel just as Gregory was entering. Gregory snatched him and called out "Barnabus, my friend, has this rogue been pestering you again? Just say the word and he's down the drain!"
"Nay, let him go," replied Barnabus. "I think I've taught him somewhat. But what brings you back here? I thought you wanted to hit the sack early."
"To tell you the truth, my friend, I have come down with a sudden case of insomnia. And thus I figured that more drink was the ticket."
"Aye, that'll put you under quick enough. One more drink and I'll end up on the floor myself."
"Well then, I'll just have to carry you home. Bartender, another round please, thank you."
"You carry me? That's a good one!"
Barnabus laughed out loud for a moment, and then put his hand on Gregory's shoulder. "But tell me, I don't think I even know your name."
"Methinks the spirits have clouded your memories. But that's irrelevant. My friend, your anecdotes about your employer have simply fascinated me. I was wondering if perhaps I could meet him tonight?"
A hush fell over the tavern.
"Do you realize what it is you ask?" whispered Barnabus. "Nobody wants to meet the boss. Nobody!"
"Nonetheless, I should like to meet him. That is, if you think that he wouldn't mind."
Barnabus chuckled slowly and put his hand back on Gregory's shoulder. "No, my friend, I don't think he'd mind at all!"
"Well, my friend," said Barnabus, "this is where I meet the boss every night. Romantic, isn't it?" He chuckled to himself.
Gregory did not feel too well, but he kept up his nonchalant appearance while awaiting the arrival of his would-be victim and/or assassin. Trying not to think of the latter possibility, he turned to ask Barnabus when his employer would arrive, only to find him vanished. In his place, only a short distance away, was a man. He was very tall. He was very black. He was very still. He was very silent.
Gregory was scared shitless.
Finally Gregory spoke, and he did it pretty damn well considering the circumstances.
"Good evening, my friend." Keep it steady, old chap.
"My name is Gregory Marshfield."
"I understand that you have been hired to kill me."
Not even a twitch of a muscle.
"Well, I'm here to let you know that I also have been hired to kill you."
In about the time it takes to blink, a long, shining blade of steel materialized in the "Night Stalker's" black-gloved hand.
Oh shit. "Wait! I'm not here to kill you," stay cool now, "but to tell you that I think something is rotten about this whole thing. You were hired by Count Orville Rumford III to kill me, and I was hired by Sir Stanley Weatherhearst to kill you."
"Don't you see? Those two are the best of friends! I think that we have been pitted against each other like gladiators in an arena, so that we can entertain those two fools!"
Still no reaction.
"Normally, I wouldn't mind killing you." Wrong thing to say. "You know what I mean: I have nothing personally against you. It's just another job, you know? But I'm not going to take part in a show put on for a pair of old duffers who probably wouldn't care who won as long as one or two master assassins were eliminated in the process." That's more like it. "Listen: I think we should call this whole thing off."
"Better yet, we should turn the tables on those two!"
"Pardon my asking, but do you have a tongue?" Shit, you asshole! What the hell did you say that for?
Then, slowly, the "Night Stalker" sheathed his blade.
"Indeed," replied the Count. "I'd wager that we could eliminate quite a few assassins this way."
"Is that another bet?"
"Let's wait until this one has culminated. Then, who knows?"
While they were talking thus, they failed to notice the rather pleasant-looking chap who had seated himself near them.
"Pardon my interrupting, friends," he said to them, "but am I correct in understanding that you gentlemen have pitted two of the best assassins in Devil's Basin against each other as part of a wager? How marvelously clever! I truly admire you two chaps."
"Well, uh, thank you," replied Sir Stanley, "er, I don't believe that I recall your name."
"Oh, come now, Sir Stanley, we've been the best of friends in the past. I'm perfectly astonished that you don't remember me."
"Ah, of course! It was in the Capital, wasn't it? Well, never mind -- I'd like to introduce you to another good friend of mine: Count Orville Rumford."
"Why, yes, young man," replied the Count. "How considerate of you to know that."
"Well, I can see right now that we shall have a splendid time together. By the way, I have a friend outside who is quite eager to make your acquaintance."
"By all means, show him in," replied Sir Stanley. Gregory stepped over to the window and opened it. Through it climbed the "Night Stalker," who walked silently over to the two nobles and towered menacingly over them as they shrank into their cushioned seats.
"Yes, gentlemen," continued Gregory, "I can see that we shall have a truly smashing time together."
The clock in the town hall struck midnight.
"I wonder," said Gregory out loud, "just who would have won that wager."
The black-clad assassin turned slightly and silently gazed down at Gregory.
"Simply a rhetorical statement, my friend." When am I going to learn to keep my bloody mouth shut? "There's no need to answer it. Can I buy you a drink?"
Within a week, they were the best of friends.
The Circular File