Detective Story #12 — The Parable of the Assassin
“A long time ago,” I began, “there was a man who so thoroughly despised one of his associates that he came to view him as an enemy and desire his death. With time, these dark feelings reached such a pitch that he approached a shady colleague who gave him the names of several assassins.”
Most versions of the parable specify the number of assassins (usually three) and many name the characters, especially the assassins. I’ve never seen the value of giving too many specifics when telling parables or jokes. It is impossible to know what associations a name will have for your readers or listeners. You also run the risk of inadvertently giving a character the same name as someone in your audience. The number of assassins is usually given as three in order to set up a Goldilocks scenario where the first two assassins describe methods and fees that are too extreme for the the man’s purpose in opposing ways. The first assassin, for instance, charges less but uses a gun or, worse still, a bomb; the second assassin, meanwhile, uses an untraceable poison but charges too much. This device has always struck me as old-fashioned and at odds with the essence of the parable.
“The man spoke to the assassins, asking about their fees and methods. He was not a wealthy man but he wanted the assassination to be subtle. The man’s hatred was deep but he wanted to escape punishment and any feelings of responsibility. Ideally, the death should appear natural. At the very least it should not be sordid. At last, he settled on the least expensive of the assassins who, despite charging much less than the others, guaranteed that the death would not raise suspicion. The assassin’s only condition was that he be allowed to set his own timeline. The man, who had achieved a certain satisfaction by acting on his wish to have his associate killed, did not especially care when the assassination occurred. ‘It will happen soon enough,’ the assassin promised.”
At this point many versions include some dialogue between the man and the assassin, the man asking what the assassin’s weapon will be and the assassin answering in the language of a riddle: “My weapon is quieter than a gun, sharper than a stiletto, subtler than poison, and more certain than all of these.” Or something along those lines. Another unnecessary flourish, in my opinion, that draws attention to a mystery that, if the story is told well, should only be hinted at.
“The man waited but his enemy lived on. Months went by but the man’s enemy seemed to go on living his life in the usual way. Finally, the man contacted the assassin and asked whether he had made any progress (asking politely, of course, for it is best to be polite to assassins). The assassin answered that fulfillment of the contract was on schedule but did not offer any other details. Years passed and the man’s enemy — so it seemed to the man — not only continued to live but seemed to be thriving. But the man’s own life had improved as well and one day he realized that the anger he felt towards his old enemy had dissipated. He contacted the assassin again and, when they met, asked him to cancel the contract: ‘I no longer bear any ill will towards the man I hired you to kill. The offensive actions that prompted me to desire his death now seem mere trifles. Some have even proven to been to my benefit. I am asking you now to cancel our contract.’ The assassin said nothing.”
Here I decided to add an exchange my father always included when he told the parable as a sort of tribute to his mentor:
“‘I see now that this was the purpose behind your delay: you used myeagerness to see this man killed to force me to pay attention to his life. By delaying his death you forced me to appreciate his life and to understand that my own anger was fleeting and petty. You have saved me from the consequences of my own anger and I thank you. I would like to reward you with a bonus.’
“The assassin nodded but his eyes showed no sign of agreement. He said, ‘You mistake me, sir. I have not sought to teach you any lessons or reveal anything to you about your motives. The contract stands and will be fulfilled.’ The man was horrified and pleaded for the contract to be annulled but the assassin only rose from his seat and left. For a long time the man waited with a feeling of dread and guilt that his former enemy would die and that would be responsible. He considered warning his former enemy or alerting the authorities but he feared that violating his contract with the assassin would only lead to his own death. Besides he knew nothing of when or how the assassination was to take place and doubted that anyone would take him seriously. Gradually, he convinced himself to doubt that the assassination action would ever occur.
“Decades passed. The man had all but forgotten that he had once hired an assassin. Only occasionally did he remember and wonder if the contract had been fulfilled — the man he had wanted killed had moved to another city years before — or if the assassin himself was still alive. Then one afternoon as the man sat in his wheelchair in the flowering garden of a nursing home an orderly brought him an envelope. In it was an obituary cut from a newspaper published in another city. The obituary stated that the man’s former enemy had died in his sleep at the age of eighty-five. Attached to the obituary with a paper clip was a yellowing copy of his contract with the assassin that had been stamped with the words ‘Fulfilled.’
The man lived another four years before dying one morning at the age of 90 following a long battle with kidney disease.”
I paused and put my hands on the desk to signal that I was done. I had added the specifics in the last sentence (borrowed from my grandfather’s own death) myself. Usually the man’s death was simply attributed to “natural causes” but I preferred to end the story with these details to add some prosaic realism.
“Thank you,” my client said, raising his head from the listening posture it had assumed: shoulders hunched, chin tucked, left ear cheated in my direction. “You tell the story well, as I knew you would.”