The Benefit of Hindsight

1 Conversation

I can remember very little about the man in the grey suit. He was slightly taller than I am, or perhaps his manner simply left that impression. His hair was probably dark, because I didn't notice its colour. He can't have been older than fifty, or younger than thirty, though come to think of it, the sense of maturity was conveyed by his words. The hint of a foreign accent, too, it fits the context, doesn't it? I might have imagined it. Did I say the suit was grey? To tell the truth, I'm not sure.

He was assuredly professional, very measured. He spoke with an even pitch and with a practical certainty about his subject. There was no drama. It was all rather surreal, talking about killing someone in those terms. The way he put it, it seemed very plausible that the victim had consciously accepted the risk. If you choose a course in the full knowledge of its possible outcome, then your death can't very well be murder, can it? There was an inevitably about it all, and even a rectitude. From the moment he told me, I didn't doubt for a minute that it was going to happen.

There's a whole spectrum of political assassination, he said. At one end of the scale, there's the loner with a grudge. They blame the Head of State for whatever trivial thing is wrong with their own trivial life, and they go after him. Occasionally, they succeed. It used to be relatively easy, but nowadays it's more or less impossible, except in places where political organisation hasn't progressed beyond anarchy. If a leader is killed in a developed country, the public story might well accuse a loner, but you can reliably assume that it's really a job from further along the spectrum.

The opposite end of the scale, said the visitor, is known in the business as consensual termination. It happens when everybody, often including the victim himself, knows that the game is up politically, and that it's time to go. In very many political systems, you see, animated resignation is inconvenient. The legacy of the predecessor lives on as long as the man himself does and this can be very damaging for the successor. It serves nobody's interest if the usefulness of an incoming regime is hampered by the public recollection of its forerunner.

Fortunately, almost every human society has embraced the notion of death as a cleanser. Even the most heinous malefactor is afforded some forgiveness when he meets a violent end and his society can then rationalise a separation of its past and future governors. Assassination of any kind is notably effective in closing the account, but consensual termination is much the tidiest form.

When he told me who was going to die, I was mildly surprised, but it seemed less remarkable the more I thought about it. What surprised me rather more was that he was talking to me at all, and I said so. For the only time in the conversation, he looked a little taken aback himself.

It was because I would write about it, he explained, in a tone that suggested that the inference should have been obvious. I had been carefully assessed and it was decided I was the right person to tell, since the likelihood of me keeping quiet about these revelations was minimal. Instead, I would do exactly what I have done. I would record the exchange on an obscure website somewhere, not prominent enough to attract attention until after the killing had taken place.

This would meet the needs of his clients perfectly, said the visitor. I pressed him further, but he declined to elaborate. It was then that he excused himself and left, with a sad shake of his head as I demanded to know if I was being set up as a patsy. I suppose that what I've written here won't look good when the man is dead. But I guess they had me worked out pretty well, that the temptation to boast would prove too great.

I'm not completely stupid, though. This is a momentous event. It will have global repercussions and anyone and everyone who comes under any kind of suspicion is going to have a very unpleasant experience. I don't want to invite all that, so I'm not going to name the name. You can just work it out for yourself, afterwards.

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