Chapter III: The Assassin
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
In Coleraine, twenty-eight miles north-west of Ballymena, and at least a million miles removed from anything I had yet encountered in my daily life, there was a mansion. I did not know this at the time. Nor, at the time, did I know anything about the mansion's inhabitants. Nevertheless, the mansion was there.
It was the home of a factory owner. His name was Bernard O'Callaghan. You ask, what does this have to do with me or with Susan?
The answer is, in life he had very little to do with us. His death, however, was one of the things that set us on the course that led to disaster.
You never know before they happen what events will have a devastating impact on your life. Sometimes you never know after they happen. Certainly, when I glanced through the day's newspaper and glimpsed an article titled "Factory Owner Murdered!", I had no idea how that would affect me.
It was about a week after that article appeared in the paper that I became only too familiar with how it would affect me. Like many things in my life, it began with Susan McQuillan.
She had taken to dropping in (thankfully not literally) every day when I returned from work. We had a cup of tea and some biscuits and chatted about how the day had gone for both of us. I never expected that day would be any different.
That was why it was so surprising to open the door and find Susan looking uncharacteristically serious.
"I need help," she said in a voice little more than a whisper.
"Help?" Her tone immediately made me think something was horribly wrong. Had she been robbed? Had she been injured in some accident? "What sort of help? Should I call the police? Or an ambulance?"
She shook her head. "No, no, not that sort of help. It's more... advice. Can you keep a secret?"
I blinked. What on earth was this about? Was she dragging me into a belated April Fools' prank?
"I certainly hope I can," I said dubiously. "What secret? Why should there be any secret?"
Susan sighed. "It's a long story."
My living room was a small, cramped room with barely enough space for two armchairs. It did not look at all like the sort of place where one would expect to hear any sort of startling revelations.
"I had a friend when I was at school," Susan said.
What her school friends had to do with anything was beyond me. And why she had announced she needed help (or advice) when she just wanted to talk about her school friends was also beyond me.
"Her name's Eulalia Plundell."
I still couldn't see why Susan was telling me this.
"She's an assassin."
Susan dropped this bombshell as if she was saying, "She's a baker" or "She's a pilot". I didn't believe my ears. There was no way that Susan McQuillan had just confessed to going to school with an assassin.
"And she's come to stay with me."
Just when I thought this sorry saga couldn't possibly get any worse...
"Maybe I should start from the beginning," Susan said. She looked embarrassed, but not nearly as embarrassed as I would look if I had to confess to knowing a murderer.
"Yes," I agreed. "Maybe you should."
"I was born in Dungannon, and went to school there. Eulalia lived across the street and went to the same school. We were almost the same age, born only a day apart, so we were constantly made to play together. We became friends because we had no choice, not because we liked each other.
"She was always an envious girl, and she thought violence was the only answer to everything. As we grew up, she became more and more angry with the world in general – and with people who had something, anything she wanted in particular. She disappeared for a year after she turned sixteen, and when she came back she told me she'd become an assassin."
Good lord. What had I gotten caught up in? Was I about to be asked to be party to an assassination?
"I didn't see her for years after that. But now she's come to stay with me. She says the police are too close on her tail for comfort, and she needs somewhere to hide until everything quietens down. So... I wanted to ask you..."
Susan stopped. She took several deep breaths. Her whole body shook like a leaf tossed by a breeze. I made no move towards her. I didn't know what to do, and I was afraid I'd only make things worse.
"What should I do?" she asked after a long silence. "Should I hand her over? Keep her hidden? Buy her an airship ticket to Timbuktu or somewhere just as far away?"
I like to think that I am reasonably qualified to give advice on several mundane difficulties. How to change a lightbulb, what to do in a powercut, how to start a car that refuses to start, that sort of thing. Giving advice in this sort of situation, however, was and is utterly beyond my abilities.
"Well..." I began, and stopped. Helplessly I looked around my living room, praying some solution would present itself. "Have you considered... asking her to leave?"
I winced. Was that really all I could think of?
Susan nodded morosely. "She laughed and said that if I tried to make her leave, she'd make sure everyone heard I was her accomplice in the assassination of Baroness Iris Dawber."
"Were you?" I asked, suddenly worried.
"Of course not!"
Well, that was a relief. It was just about the only thing in this fiasco that was.
"But she could tell everyone I was, and who would believe me if I denied it? Once you're accused of a crime, you're guilty of it in the eyes of the world. No one wants to hear the truth when the lie is more exciting."
That statement was the truth then, over a decade ago. Just as it is the truth now, and always has been and always will be. Every journalist, storyteller, author knows it. No one wants the dull or unpleasant truth when they can hear an exciting or comforting lie. But I digress.
"Where is this... Eulalia now?" What a name, I thought. Who ever heard of an assassin named Eulalia?
"Upstairs. In my rooms. When I left she was helping herself to a cup of tea and some of my shortbread!"
Susan sounded more indignant about the shortbread than about the assassin. I took a deep breath and wondered how much trouble this would cause.
In the end we decided nothing. Wait, that's not quite true. We decided that Mrs. Credge must never, under any circumstances, have reason to suspect of Eulalia's presence.
Susan left. I sat in front of my typewriter for an hour after she left, searching for something, anything to add to my novel. I couldn't think of a single word. Every time I tried to concentrate on the dilemma in which I had left my protagonists at the end of the last chapter, my thoughts jumped to Susan and the assassin that had taken up residence in her rooms.
At this very minute, I realised, a murderess might be right over my head, separated from me by only two storeys. Did she have her weapons with her? Could she be surprised, disarmed, taken into custody before she killed someone?
I slept poorly that night. I started awake at every sound, both real and imagined, expecting to see a shadowy figure aiming a gun at my head. When I finally fell asleep, it was only an hour before dawn. My alarm clock awoke me far too soon for my liking.
I left the house and wended my way towards the library. It dawned on me, as I passed crowds of people hurrying to begin their daily jobs for the umpteenth time, that none of them knew the secret weighing on my mind. Nor did I know the secrets weighing on their minds. Was there someone, among all those crowds of people, who had a secret as serious as the one I kept?
For the rest of the day I did my best to forget about the assassin lurking somewhere about the town. I might have succeeded, too, if not for Blanche Fulton.
Once again, she swept into the library at closing time, heralded by an overpowering smell of perfume and the words "Have you heard?" Once again, everyone's reaction was "Heard what?"
"Why, about the assassination, of course!"
My heart seemed to plummet down to my feet.
"Assassination?" someone repeated. "What assassination?"
Blanche beamed. There is nothing anyone likes better than being the first to know something, or having something that other people don't.
"Mr. O'Callaghan, owner of O'Callaghan's Cotton Factory. He was murdered a few days ago. The police have questioned his workers and associates. They've come to the conclusion that a rival factory owner hired an assassin to kill O'Callaghan because he was taking away some of their customers. And! Guess what? The police think the assassin has gone to ground in Ballymena!"
My stomach seemed to twist itself into a knot. I could hardly hear anything over the pounding of my heart echoing in my ears. There was no doubt in my mind that the assassin she was referring to was none other than Eulalia Plundell.
Had the police already discovered her whereabouts? Had they already stormed the house and arrested Eulalia? Had they arrested Susan too? Were they about to barge into the library and arrest me as a possible accomplice?
I took a deep breath and forced myself to calm down. Even if the police did arrest Eulalia, hell, even if they arrested Susan, there was no reason for them to think I had any part in the whole sorry business. And if they did arrest Susan, all she had to do was explain to them that Eulalia had blackmailed her into it. They would understand that, under the circumstances, she had no choice.
I was very naïve all those years ago. Fool that I was, I thought that there was some justice in the world. I know better now.
Blanche was still chattering on in the background. Everyone else was hanging on her every word with bated breath and rapt attention. No one had noticed my panic attack.
"They say this assassin they're looking for is responsible for the murders of about twenty people that the police know about!" Blanche exclaimed. There was a collective intake of breath from her audience. My mouth suddenly became as dry as dust. Twenty people? "And no one is sure what he or she looks like! They're not even sure if it's a man or woman. Some people say it's a whole group of assassins."
Minnie scoffed. "If no one knows what this assassin looks like, then how can the police be sure they're here?"
At her words, the sense of cold dread that had taken up residence in my chest became slightly less. Perhaps the police had no idea who they were looking for. Perhaps Eulalia would leave without them ever finding her.
I wandered home that evening, walking more slowly than usual. It was ten past five, and many of the people who had hurried to work that morning were now hurrying from work. I looked at the crowds thronging the streets with as much disinterest as if I had been watching a rather boring television programme.
What are they hurrying to? I wondered as I watched them. To watch a football game on the TV? To have dinner? To listen to the radio? Have they no knowledge of the murderers that could be lurking in the streets, the shops, the house next door?
Of course they hadn't. I hadn't either, until Eulalia saw fit to inflict her presence on Susan. It's strange how a single person can have such an effect on another person. I had never seen Eulalia in my life. A day ago I hadn't known she existed. She could have passed me on the street there and then and I wouldn't have known her from the countless other women passing by. And yet she had become the shadow following me, the reason for the fear and dread I couldn't shake off.
Really, I thought, if this continues much longer I shall be a nervous wreck!
I reached my lodgings. I went up the outside stairs that led to the first floor, unlocked the door, and walked down the hallway to my rooms.
My door was unlocked. That was my first clue that something was wrong.
The gun aimed at my head was the second clue.