He lived alone on the 8th floor in a building next to the park. He had no visitors the day he was killed by a poisoned dart.
Willoughby Thomas hadn’t always been a recluse. He hadn’t always been called Willoughby Thomas either. The two facts are not unrelated.
The man now known as Willoughby Thomas changed his name and became a recluse because he thought someone was trying to kill him.
If it had just been someone trying to kill him, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But he had become convinced that he was a target for that mysterious band of assassins, the Men of Mist.
Where did the conviction come from? Willoughby Thomas (we’ll call him Willoughby Thomas, though his problems began when he was known by a very different name) was a wealthy man. In the course of acquiring his wealth, he had also acquired a number of enemies. He had stepped on a few toes, if the truth be known. And maybe even stabbed a few backs.
Some of those with sore toes and perforated backs were wealthy individuals in their own right. Their enmity could be taken for granted. So too could their power to act on it. In addition, there is nothing like shared resentment for binding men together. He sensed the existence of a grouping. He deduced the existence of a fund.
Their intention, he was in no doubt, was to have him killed.
They could afford the best. Which is only to say, they could afford the Men of Mist.
When you find you have more enemies than friends, reclusiveness is not such a hard step to take. It’s possibly not even a step at all. It’s just what you wake up to find your life has become.
Willoughby Thomas’s wealth was such that he could afford to buy anything he wanted, including obscurity. The cost, in fact, was relatively small, and that was the beauty of it. Why build a high-tech fortress and surround himself with body guards when he could simply disappear?
His enemies might have suspected him of anything, but surely no one suspected he would move from a luxurious penthouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to a crumbling high rise in the Bronx. From a view over Central Park to a prospect of Playground 52.
The park was important. He didn’t want to be overlooked. Why should he give his enemies’ agents the opportunity to take pot shots at him from a neighbouring window?
He wanted an apartment high above the tree line too. It was not inconceivable that the Men of Mist would pose as tree surgeons in order to get him in their sights. He had also heard of a freak accident in which a man was killed by a shot intended for a rabid squirrel perched on a branch near an open window. Obviously he wanted to avoid such a fate befalling him. It would have been a tragic irony to have escaped the machinations of the Men of Mist only to be killed by a careless vermin controller.
So he had chosen an apartment on the eighth floor, overlooking the open ground of a public park. He was careful, too, to ensure that there were no tethered hot air balloon rides offered from Playground 52. An unnecessary precaution? When you are convinced that the Men of Mist are out to get you, there is no limit to the modes of death you will imagine for yourself.
He altered his physical appearance too. An afro wig and dyed skin, together with coloured contact lenses to turn his blue eyes brown. Most people would have left it there, but Willoughby Thomas also had plastic surgery to give himself features more in keeping with his new ethnicity. Another surgeon removed 1 cm from each shin bone.
Extreme measures, but he considered himself to be in an extreme situation.
The story was put about that he had converted to Buddhism and entered a monastery of that faith.A trail was concocted leading to Tibet. There he availed himself of a rival band of assassins, The Fellowship of Shadows, who were commissioned to set a trap for the Men of Mist.
They were to lie in wait and kill any and all who came looking for the man he had once been.
Only when he had taken all these precautions, did Willoughby Thomas feel he could relax.
But as anyone who has ever crossed paths with the Men of Mist and survived will tell you, the moment you relax is the moment you are most at danger. Naturally, there was no one to tell Willoughby Thomas this, because no one has ever crossed paths with the Men of Mist and survived.
It was a hot summer’s day. The apartment was without air conditioning, so he had the windows open. Why shouldn’t he? He was well above ground level, not overlooked by anyone within firing range and with no danger of attack from a hot air balloon.
He could hear the voices of the neighbourhood kids coming up from the playground below. Their shouts and laughter seemed more excited than usual, and there was a strange buzzing drone cutting through the human noise. The drone had a rhythmic swoop, which the kids’ excitement seemed to be in time with.
Willoughby Thomas was sufficiently intrigued to be drawn to the open window.
He looked down on what appeared to be a radio-controlled model aircraft tournament. A crowd of kids had gathered around the radio control flyers, their heads angled up, following the looping circuits of the miniature craft that filled the space between Willoughby Thomas and the ground.
A pang of nostalgia took Willoughby Thomas back to his own childhood. His father had been a modeller. His dad’s patience during the build phase had always impressed him, awed him even. And the sense of liberation – the joy – that came when a new model was taken on its maiden flight still set his pulse racing.
But the best moment of all was when his dad handed him the controller for the first time. It was heavy in his young hands with the weight of privilege and responsibility.
He did not let his father down. He flew the quarter-sized yellow Cessna without mishap, though his arms were trembling with the strain of it by the time he handed the controller back for his dad to bring the plane in.
Willoughby Thomas watched mesmerised by the past as one of the craft – a military helicopter – detached itself from the rest and rose towards him.
He didn’t even move away as it hovered outside his window, its missile launcher pointed towards him.
A red light glowed in the cockpit. The kind of light that shows on a camcorder when it’s filming. A pneumatic hiss broke his trance. He sensed rather than saw a silver flash shoot out from the helicopter. Something sharp jabbed his neck.
The helicopter bobbed up and then banked and buzzed away.
Willoughby Thomas’s hand felt at the stabbing sensation in his neck. There was something metallic sticking into his skin. The tip of it must have been shaped like a fish-hook because he couldn’t pull it out, or at least when he tried to he felt a searing shot of pain.
He staggered away from the window, but he knew it was too late. The room began to swim. His legs gave way beneath him.
Could the Men of Mist have known about his father’s hobby? Was this why they chose to attack him in this way, knowing that the sight of a model aircraft tournament would cause him to lower his guard? It’s certainly possible, as the man who became Willoughby Thomas had once given a newspaper interview in which he had talked emotionally about Sundays in the park with his model-flying father. It’s to be taken for granted that the Men of Mist do their research.
Certainly the false trail to Tibet failed to entrap them. Perhaps they had infiltrated their rivals, the Fellowship of Shadows. Too little is known about either organisation; we can even speculate that the two groups are linked, if not one and the same.
How did they track him down to the high rise block next to Playground 52? We will never know, except to say there are always ways. Disgruntled assistants, bribe-able nursing staff, blackmail-able surgeons. Whenever you create a conspiracy, you lay yourself open to betrayal.
Clearly, changing his height, skin, eye and hair colour was not enough to throw them off the scent. But, strangely – and perhaps revealingly – the thing that puzzled him most as he lay on paralysed and dying on the floor of the apartment was how it was they knew that the man who was now called Willoughby Thomas had once been the famous billionaire, Thomas Willoughby.