The Last Word
Carmichael stood in the shadow cast by a street light and watched the door of the house that was his target; periodically looking away to check the time on the pocket watch he carried. If his timepiece was correct then he had no more than five minutes to wait until the moment to act arrived. His black topcoat and hat made him all but invisible with only the paleness of his thin face having the potential to betray him if any random stranger came strolling along the street, an eventuality that previous reconnaissance had proven was most unlike at this hour of the night. There was only one person that Carmichael was anticipating seeing the street tonight, indeed his entire plan centred on that individual making an appearance.
It was some four minutes later when the door of the house opened and a figure slouched out on to the street, a stocky figure with the collar of his coat pulled up to obscure his face. The gesture did nothing to disguise him from Carmichael. The man’s name was Roker and he was valet to the owner of the house. More to the point he was the only servant who actually lived on the premises and he had a habit of slipping away once his master had retired for the evening to drink and carouse at a public house with a highly dubious reputation. It was not behaviour that Carmichael would normally have approved of but it suited him quite well tonight.
Watching until Roker disappeared around a street corner Carmichael stepped out of the shadow and walked across the road, his stride measured so he was neither running nor creeping, simply a man about some ordinary business, certainly not a man planning to commit murder. Carmichael worked to maintain that manner as he climbed the short flight of granite steps and reached out to turn the door handle, he did catch his breath as he laid his hand on the cold metal but no passer-by would have noticed that, nor the small sigh Carmichael released as the handle turned and the door opened.
He closed the door behind him quickly and quietly and began to examine the hallway he was standing in. There were no sounds beyond that of a ticking grandfather clock set against wall and the hallway was in darkness. Fortunately for Carmichael his eyes remained adapted to the night and he was able to make out sufficient detail to proceed with his task. A rug ran down the centre of the hallway but the stairs themselves were bare polished wood. Carmichael was prepared for that, his shoes possessed soft rubber soles rather than leather and combined with Carmichael’s light tread they made almost no sound as he ascended the stairs.
There were four doors along the upper hallway but only one of them had a flickering thread of illumination leaking out beneath it. Carmichael marched up to it and cautiously opened it, prompting a voice to call out, “Roker? What are you doing…” The voice trailed off as the light revealed the figure of Carmichael filling the doorway.
The man in the bed was white haired with mutton chop whiskers that couldn’t hide how sunken his face was and the dim light of the lamp set beside the bed simply emphasised the lines and wrinkles in his face. He was holding a leather bound book in his hands that dropped to the bed covers as the man abandoned it and reached for the bell pull beside the bed.
“That will do you no good Mister Luscombe; we are quite alone in the house.”
Luscombe removed his thin, gnarled hand from the bell pull, “Curse that drunkard Roker!” He looked at Carmichael with a glare that was perhaps intended to be intimidating but his weak eyes and the half-moon glasses precariously perched upon his nose robbed it of any power as he commented, “If you have come to rob me sir then you have chosen the wrong establishment. The bulk of my money and valuable are safely within the vaults of Baring & Co. You will find little reward in robbing me.”
“Then it is fortunate for me that petty theft is not my goal.” Carmichael responded calmly.
“Then what the devil do you want?”
“Why your life Mister Luscombe, my name is Carmichael Gray and I am here as the agent of your overdue demise.”
Luscombe removed his reading glasses and squinted at Carmichael, “I am quite certain I do not know you sir, so what injury can I have inflicted on you to justify such an action? Or has one of my relatives become so desperate for their inheritance that they have hired an assassin to dispatch me?”
Carmichael could see that Luscombe didn’t take his statement seriously; yet. “Mister Luscombe I am motivated neither by malice nor profit, I am here because your recent illness should have been the end of you and you cannot be permitted to cheat fate. This is your time to die.”
Luscombe stared at Carmichael and then actually began to laugh, which swiftly degenerated into a coughing fit. When he recovered his composure his expression was one of disdain, “Utter rot, a man makes his own fate sir. If you know anything of my life you will know I have escaped death a dozen times, where were you on those occasions?”
Carmichael ignored the final question, “I know a great deal of your life sir, indeed a study of it was essential to my craft.”
“You call murder a craft?”
“No Mister Luscombe, acting as the agent of fate is my calling. My craft is the writing of obituaries.”
There was dead silence in the bedchamber for few moments and when Luscombe broke it his tone was one of utter incredulity, “Am I to understand that you intend to murder me, simply so you can write my obituary?”
Carmichael expression became pained, “Nothing so crass sir, it is quite the opposite indeed, it is through my obituaries that the fates tell me who it is that I must seek out and dispatch on their behalf.”
“That is preposterous, surely you must see that?”
Carmichael could tell Luscombe was playing for time but there was plenty to spare and he had found engaging with the soon to be departed sometimes elicited details that could be used to put a final polish on their obituary as they entertained the futile hope that some such revelation might gain them a reprieve. “It is not preposterous Mister Luscombe, there comes a moment in the composition of one of my obituaries when the pen seems to move of its own accord, the words coming from some other place and when that happens I know the person in question has been marked out by fate.”
“Fate as informed by your prejudices and opinions no doubt.” Luscombe sneered.
“Again you misjudge me. For years I worked at my craft without the fates calling to me, I was well regarded by those publications that employed me and it is their practise, though not one they publicize, to have a certain portfolio of obituaries to hand for prominent individuals whose age or actions meant death hovered close to them. For years I simply wrote those pre-emptive obituaries and placed them in my files against the day they were needed.”
“Until one day you decided to turn to murder?”
“Not murder sir, ensuring the proper order of things. As I said for years the fates did not call to me and then one day I was working on rewriting the final word on a gentleman who had vanished and was presumed deceased and for the first time I felt another hand moving my pen, guiding it to create something greater than I could have fashioned on my own.”
“Oh let me guess, the gentleman in question had the impertinence to turn up alive.”
Carmichael had warmed sufficiently to his subject that he missed the sarcasm of Luscombe’s remark, “Exactly and it troubled me greatly, why had this other, this higher power, imbued my writing with such grace if not to commemorate the passing of this man? I brooded over it for days until finally I understood.”
“That you are stark, raving mad? A lunatic who should be in strait jacket? Good god man how many people have you killed for your insane beliefs?”
“You Mister Luscombe will be the eighth, and since it is clear you have no useful remarks to offer I must be about my business.” Carmichael had taken half a step before he heard a sharp metallic click behind him.