think what's really bothering me is the potential for abuse in this
Boggs took a long, thoughtful
pull at his beer. He wondered if Sharp's businesslike mind was elastic enough
to entertain the idea.
It was the sleepy hour of
mid-afternoon when half the drink dispensers had been shut off. Besides
themselves, there were only two or three quiet drunks hunched at corner tables.
Even so, he lowered his voice.
"It's occurred to me
that these death ceremonies could provide a very nice cover for murder."
Sharp laughed. "Bill,
this is a pretty silly reason for dragging me out of my office during business
"I had to talk to
somebody, and the choice was limited. Sheila says I've become morbid on the
subject of death lately: I can't talk to her about it. But it was what she said
about Mrs. Fastchuk's switching-off that set me thinking. The flowers, the
banquet, the sing-song... the old dear just loved it, Sheila said." He
looked around and lowered his voice still more. "But suppose the old dear didn't
know she was going to die?"
"But that's ridiculous!
You're accusing Eleanor -- "
"Not at all. I'm just
saying this shows how easily a death ceremony could be used to commit murder,
so long as the candidate was unaware that it was a death ceremony."
"Now, Bill, that's
impossible! There are all kinds of regulations that are designed to prevent
that sort of thing happening. First of all, there's the Intent-to-Suicide form
that has to filed at least two weeks before the event. It has to be signed,
witnessed and notarized. Then there's the psycho-medical exam to show the
candidate is of sound mind and not under the influence of any drug, and that
form has to be signed by a physician."
"Ever hear of
"Yes, and there are
microscanners to catch that. But even if a forgery slipped by, there's the
publicity. You have to post a notice of the intended suicide at least a week
beforehand in the media. The candidate would have to see that!"
"No, because you don't
have to post notice -- though most people do it by custom -- if the ceremony is
to be held in the presence of ten witnesses. You send invitations by mail to
just those ten people and they are the only ones who will know, aside from the
Registrar General, and who cares what a computer thinks?"
"Yes, but Bill."
Sharp spoke in a clear, patient tone. He had downed only half a drink to Boggs'
three and plainly thought him sloshed. "Those ten other people would know.
And they would tell other people. The suicide would be general knowledge for a
week beforehand and all the candidate's friends and relatives would be talking
about it, especially if it were an unexpected suicide. Are you trying to say
that the subject of all this talk could be totally unaware of what was going
"Yes!" Boggs cried
impatiently. Then he leaned forward and lowered his voice again. "The real
clincher is this. Haven't you noticed? From the moment the invitations go out,
nobody will breathe a word about it to the candidate. We don't discuss it with
him: it just isn't done. Everybody pretends, to his face, that things are
normal, that he has plans for next year same as anybody else. Right up to the
last moment it looks and feels -- to the candidate -- like a lovely party. It
might even be his birthday. He'd never know."
"Good heavens... "
Sharp scratched his chin. "I almost begin to think you're serious. But no,
it wouldn't work. There are too many chances for a slip. Here's an example:
that man in black, with the champagne, the one Charon always trots out just
before the big moment. One glimpse of him, and the victim would know it wasn't
just a birthday party."
Boggs waved a hand. "At
a formal dinner, that would be one of the simpler details. Position the
servitor out of the candidate's line of vision, and have him serve the glass of
champagne from behind. He'd be just another waiter."
"All right, then, but
suppose the victim had a spouse or children. They'd hear of the upcoming
suicide and say What the Hell? And then it would be out."
"Not if the thing were
properly managed." Boggs rolled his glass between his palms. "What
you'd do is spread the word, very discretely, that the candidate's mother,
husband or whatever was upset about the decision and his or her feelings should
be respected. There's a tendency, anyway, to include the immediate family in
the pretence of normality."
"But they'd find out
"Yes, but by then the
victim would be in no position to contradict all the signed documents. It's
happened, and not so seldom either, that somebody arranges a suicide without
telling his nearest and dearest, because he can't face the emotional turmoil of
the waiting period. It's not a responsible thing to do, but people do it."
He paused, and met Sharp's
puzzled gaze. "There's also this, Ken. It's the nearest and dearest who
are the likeliest murderers, isn't that so? 'The near in blood, the nearer
Sharp reached over and took
Boggs' half-empty glass away. "I think Sheila's right. You're getting
morbid. Bill, are you sure you haven't made a mistake? Maybe you'd better give
this thing more thought."
"Believe me, I've gone
over it a dozen times. I'm sure I'm right. What time is it? That late? Damn, we
may have missed Sheila's special." He swivelled to face the video in the
wall by their table and punched in channel ten.
They found Sheila radiating
charmed absorption, her usual interviewing expression. Normally her subjects
were flattered into volubility, but the fierce-looking old man in the cassock
seemed immune. He'd been caught in mid-sentence.
" -- views on the matter
and the church's position are too well known to make that question anything but
silly and irrelevant."
"Then you don't support
the United Church splinter group that wants church involvement in -- "
"In this legalized
abomination? No, I do not!"
"Thank you, Your
His Grace vanished and Sheila
reappeared against a backdrop of spruces and spring flowers. A breeze stirred
fine, dark tendrils around her face.
"Still a lovely woman,
isn't she?" Sharp said.
"Mm." In the last
few days he had been looking harder at Sheila's co-hosts than at her. During
her various reports she had appeared with six different male reporters or
anchormen, three of them young and handsome.
"Now for a different
viewpoint," she said earnestly, "we turn to Humphrey Hastey, who as
president of Charon Catering has perhaps more inside knowledge of the suicide
industry than anyone else in the country. Mr. Hastey, what is your reaction to
the declaration of the United Church splinter group, Blessed Death, that the
churches ought to give official sanction to suicide, and allow deaths on their
"Well, naturally, I'm
all for it." Humphrey was shown sitting on a stone wall beside her. With
his plump belly, he looked like the spider beside Miss Muffet, Boggs thought.
The wall and the spruces were part of the landscaped grounds at Charon
"For many people,"
Hump went on, "death has religious associations. It seems to me entirely
appropriate that the churches should become involved."
"However, the heads of
the mainstream churches, synagogues and temples have expressed their
opposition, as I'm sure you know."
"Oh, certainly, the more
conservative groups won't come round to the concept overnight. But I'm sure
we'll see a softening of attitudes in that quarter eventually." Humphrey
sent the viewer a serious little smile. He had been careful not to grin, so
"The Anglican Primate
charges, in fact, that the concept of legal suicide is ethically and morally
corrupt, and is the product of modern moral cowardice."
"If I may paraphrase a
favorite author of mine, Somerset Maugham, I can only approve the man who
chooses the time and manner of his own passing, when life has nothing left to
offer him. I might also ask why the church is prepared to approve people taking
control over their children's conception, but not over their own
"Good point," Sharp
Boggs sniffed. "To
equate birth control with death control -- that's stupid. There's no
"Well, that's it, the
segment's over." Sharp blanked the screen. "I've got work to do, even
if you don't."
They walked to the bar, where
Boggs pulled out his debit card. Before he could use it, though, Sharp said,
"No, let me!" and swiftly fed his card to the bartender, which
displayed a surprisingly long row of figures before spitting out the card again.
Boggs was embarrassed and
surprised. Not that he'd had so many drinks, but at Sharp's behavior: he was
never this free with his money, and rarely treated. In fact, this was the third
time in the past week that someone had insisted on paying for Boggs' drinks.
It was strange. He didn't
Billy Boggs switched off the
phone with a slap. "People are becoming damned odd!"
"Oh? Odd how?"
"Buying me drinks.
Giving me things. My monthly editor sent me an advance on my next column, and
he's never done that before. And people I hardly know -- or like -- have been
calling me up to chat, or sending pleasant little notes in the mail. Even Eleanor."
"You're right, it is
odd. Just today she told me she thought you aren't such an old stick after
"Did she say why?"
"No: she was rather
vague about it. All I can think of is that you're becoming a sort of oddball
celebrity about death ceremonies. I guess it's made people take notice."
"There have been other
He threw himself into a
corner of the sofa. Sheila was curled up at the other end, hands in lap, lost
in a dreamy inspection of her upturned palms. The abstracted, rather worried look
was always there, these days.
He thought: She does love me.
She couldn't possibly... But suppose... just suppose that's the reason.... that
"What case?" Sheila
asked. He'd spoken the last two words aloud.
He cleared his throat.
"That very strange murder that came to trial last month. The young wife --
remember? She was in love with another man but she knew it would hurt her
husband too much to tell him so, and she couldn't face the pain she would have
to inflict, so instead of divorcing him, she poisoned him. Said it was
"That! Yes, I remember.
She wasn't all there, was she?" Sheila stared at him. "Why? Did you
"No, no. Just another
little disturbance. Life's full of them lately. Like those diabolical notes of
Humphrey's. Every day, another one. And always, always with the black
"The printer's been
repaired, so it isn't that. Perhaps he does it to all his friends?"
"No: just to me. I've
"Then it must be a joke.
If it's getting tiresome, why not tell him so?"
"And let him know it's
getting to me? No, he's got some scheme going.Whenever I see him he makes some
depressing remark about my age or my health. And then in the next breath he
demands that I come to this miserable party of his and celebrate my
He did not add that he didn't
mind these digs so much as the sly hints about Sheila and "some handsome
young kid" that kept winging into the Hump's phone calls (though never the
mailed notes) like stinging flies.
"It's the day after tomorrow,"
she said casually. "You are going, aren't you?"
"I don't know. I doubt
"What a shame. Well, you
might at least let Humphrey off the hook. I'd been looking forward to it: but
there'll be plenty of other chances in future, I guess."
"To see you really
enjoying yourself. It doesn't happen often enough." She got up and
stretched. "By the way, who was that on the phone just now?"
"What do you mean?"
"When I answered, nobody
spoke. I heard him catch his breath. Then he switched off."
"Now, that is odd. No
"No, it was blank."
"But who would do
"Who do you think?"
"I can't imagine."
She smoothed her hair studiously and met his glance with a wide-eyed stare, as
if to say, See? I have nothing to hide.
Boggs stood up, one hand on
his stomach. "I think I'll go to bed. I don't feel well."
That was truer than ever,
these days. His digestion had never been worse. At this moment nausea crouched
in his stomach like a demon and spread its poisonous influence throughout his
crazy," he said as he slumped onto his bed. "Either the whole world
is off the rails, or it's me. Suspecting Sheila after the best ten years of my
life -- what an ass I am! Of course she loves me!"
The demon nausea sneered.
"Love you? How could she love a broken-down old hack like you?"
"But she married me --
"For love? Don't be
stupid! Convenience, that's why. You had status and money and a certain media
cachet. But that was then. This is now. And now she'd inherit the money."
"But she's too decent!
Too kind-hearted! She couldn't possibly... "
The demon snickered and reminded
him of the recent murder case. "And something else: those black borders on
Humphrey's notes. That's his way of warning you. He suspects."
"But that's full of
holes!" Boggs felt as if he'd caught hold of a good solid rope while in
free fall off the top of a fifty-storey building. "If he suspected
anything, he wouldn't be nagging at me to come to the party. And what's more,
he'd have checked up on the documents. He'd find out for sure, and if there was
something funny going on, he'd tell me outright."
"Unless he was in on
"Then why rouse my
suspicions with the black borders?"
"Sick sense of
humor?" the demon suggested weakly.
But Boggs put the demon down
firmly. He'd just thought of the one way of setting his mind at rest. He jumped
to his feet. "I really must be going senile! Why didn't I think of this
He turned on his computer. In
seconds the Registrar-General's records were at his fingertips. Births,
marriages, adoptions, divorces, name changes, nationality changes, sex changes,
deaths, intents-to-suicide. He went over the last month's entries twice. Then
he carefully scanned the files for the past year. Finally he smiled and shut
off the unit.
He undressed, showered, put
on a dressing gown and crossed the hall to Sheila's room. She was lying in bed
with a book open against her knees, but she wasn't reading.
"Hop in." She
lifted the coverlet. "You look more cheerful, though. Stomach
"Seems to be." He
cleared his throat. "I've decided to go to the party after all."
"Oh, I'm so glad. We'll
have a wonderful time!"
of part 3