"Words like candidate, passing, taking off, departing, even traveller -- that's one with religious overtones -- " Boggs paused for a bite of toast.
"I think the latest is 'switching off,'" said Sheila. "At least, I think that's what Eleanor meant last week when she said her mother was making up her mind to switch off. Are you planning a column about it?"
"Two. One for the daily and one much more in depth, for the monthly."
"For Living Arts? Seems a bit out of place."
"I'm supposed to be columnist-at-large, all arts and all customs. Death certainly comes under that heading."
A panel in the wall beside the breakfast table lit up. "Mail call," Sheila said. "Shall we listen?"
Boggs shook his head, so she tapped the button for a printout. He disliked having his mail talk to him, at least in that chirpy electronic voice that made all communications sound equally mindless. Sheila plucked the sheets as they coiled from the slot, studied them and passed them over.
"Here's one from your daily, a credit. Here's a debit from the grocer -- and another from the hairdresser -- and, oh dear, here's an invitation for me from Eleanor. Yes, her mother's going to switch off on the fourteenth. I suppose I should go."
"You don't enjoy these things any more than I do, admit it."
"Sometimes they can be quite beautiful. But knowing Eleanor, this one will be something between a trashing party and a seance... Hm. Here's another, and it's to both of us, Billy. From the Hump."
The note was edged with a wide black border. Boggs frowned. "That's odd. He hasn't any older relatives... " An icy hand clutched his stomach. "No, it can't be. He wouldn't!"
"Oh, no!" Sheila laughed. "No, he's not planning to switch off, not just yet! It's an invitation to a party. You know how he loves parties. I suppose that's how he got into the catering business. He has other companies, hasn't he?"
"Yes, all with precious classical names. Demeter for weddings and anniversaries and such. And Phoebus for academic and artsy affairs. Then there's Eros: the less said about that, the better."
"I've heard of that one. Eleanor's hired them a few times."
"Has she?" He looked at her sideways. "She hasn't invited you to any orgies, I hope?" He'd disliked Eleanor ever since she told Sheila that he was a chapter in her life that should have been closed long ago.
"She's issued a few invitations, yes." Her dark eyes were bright with mischief. "She thinks I should be moving on to a new relationship with a younger man, so I can develop the sensual side of myself. She said our marriage is fine intellectually but it's having a narrowing effect on my libido."
Boggs made an angry noise, and she laughed at him. Then reached across the table to touch his nose. "I told her you're pretty good at the sensual side of things too... "
He gazed at her, feeling helplessly in love. Often he wondered what she could possibly have seen in him when they met, he a self-confessed journalistic relic of fifty and she a slim and lovely video reporter half his age. Whatever it was, she still seemed to see it now, after ten years of marriage.
"Well, here's the invitation," she said, and handed it over.
Boggs muttered through it. "Saturday, May 20... 8:30 p.m..... Traditional evening dress requested... I suppose by that he means a tie for the gents and no topless ladies, please. But why traditional? Since we were kids I've never known him to miss a chance to kick sand in the face of tradition. His parties have always been his way of showing how top-of-the-wave he is, that's why I avoid them."
"I don't think I've ever seen him in a tie."
"Guess what he was wearing at Sharp's ceremony yesterday? Lilac and lemon coveralls. For him, that was discretion."
"Traditional... " Sheila nibbled her lip. "It could be fun. What should I wear?"
The mail slot flashed again. She pressed printout and a single message curled out. Again it was bordered heavily in black.
"That's got to be a death invitation," Boggs said. "I won't go!"
"No, it's a note from the Hump."
"But why the black border? What does he say?"
"He says, 'Dear Bill and Sheila, you've got my invitation. Please come! Traditional dress is in honor of you, Bill, because YOU are to be the guest of honor. RSVP, you old stick-in-the-mud. Best, Hump.' How lovely!"
"Me the guest of honor? But why? Our tenth anniversary's still a month off. And then you'd be guest of honor too. And my birthday's two months past."
"Well, you are his best friend."
"He could have thrown me a party any time in the last forty years, and never did. Not once. So, why now?" He pushed away his half-eaten toast. Something had destroyed his appetite.
"To make up for past neglect? Or maybe he's run out of other excuses for a party."
"That must be it." Boggs relaxed. "All the same, I don't like the black borders. Only death invitations have them. And both Humphrey's messages have them, none of the others."
"I think the printer may be on the fritz. Yesterday the tax debit came all sprinkled over with silver stars. Usually only my dressmaker's debit has stars: the tax bill has asterisks."
"I wouldn't be at all surprised to find he's trying to put one over on me. No, I don't think I'll risk going."
"But you must go! You're to be the guest of honor!" She looked upset. Boggs narrowed his eyes at her.
"Do you know something I don't? Has he been at you?"
"Of course not!" She bounced up from the table. "Will you put the dishes in the washer? I have to be off. I mean -- " She laughed uncomfortably. "I've got an assignment. Bye, darling!"
"I can't believe that on a day like this, anyone in his right mind would consider suicide."
With his jacket unzipped, Billy Boggs was leaning on an iron railing overlooking the river. It was the first warm day of the season, the first day he'd stopped doubting spring had really arrived. The water sang and sparkled like champagne. The hills across the river were the warmest shade of mauve.
"The thing is," said Ken Sharp, "if you've made all the arrangements for a death ceremony you can't very well call it off just because the weather's fine, can you? Think of all the people you'd inconvenience, not to mention losing your deposit with the caterers."
"Uh, Ken, I never got to tell you how sorry I am... "
"I took it as said. But there's no need to be sorry. Dad was having a hard time getting around, and you know how he always liked to be on the go. From his point of view, it was a positive step."
"It's amazing to me that with all the scientific advances of the last fifty years, we still haven't cured all the ills of aging." Boggs spoke indignantly: it had been the theme of several of his columns. "Alzheimer's, dementia, late-onset diabetes, a range of joint diseases -- "
"But nobody dies of cancer or AIDS any more. There's one bright spot."
"That may be more curse than blessing. They've prolonged the agony in millions of lives."
"That's why so many choose suicide, I suppose. I'm sure I will myself, when I get to Dad's age."
Boggs grabbed his arm. "God, Ken, not you!"
"Why not?" Sharp blinked at him mildly. "Better to leave while life is still good, I believe."
"But Ken, listen, that's all wrong! Look at me: I take drugs for high blood pressure, and they disagree with me. Most of what I like to eat and drink disagrees with me. I'm getting old, I'm overweight, it's all downhill from here -- should I be thinking of suicide?"
"Bill, I... I don't know what to say... "
"Of course I shouldn't, damn it! The sun is shining, the sky is blue. Life is good, that's what I'm trying to say. It's more important to live than to live comfortably."
"Try telling that to somebody who's really uncomfortable!"
"It's lack of guts! Our trouble is, we have it too easy. Life was a lot tougher in the old days." He waved angrily at the river below them. "That was a sewer, the whole country was polluted. People were actually starving. And they were all afraid of blowing themselves up with the Bomb. Well, now look at us!"
"Yes, but, Bill -- "
"Now we live in a world of peace and plenty. We've controlled the population problem, we've fixed the environmental problems, we've made war a historical curiosity. We have nothing to fear! Unlike our grandparents, we know life is getting better, instead of worse!"
"Yes? So?" Sharp's eyes looked slightly glazed and Boggs suspected he was mentally reviewing his appointments for the afternoon instead of listening. He raised his voice.
"So why are we killing ourselves? Why now more than at any other time in history? What's the matter with us?"
"I don't have the answers, Bill. Ask your readers. By the way -- and don't blow up at this, please -- Milly has been seriously considering taking the step herself, possibly next year."
"Milly?" Boggs gasped.
"Milly, my wife."
"I know who she is, idiot. But, Milly? She's only 56. Sharp, why?"
"It's the breast cancer from a few years back. There's been a recurrence. They can deal with it but she hated the treatment and she says she doesn't want to go through it again."
Boggs stared at the river. If he spoke he knew he would rage at the man, and that would be unforgivable.
After a few minutes during which the soft roar of the water and the trill of birds was the only sound, Sharp spoke hesitantly. "So, Bill, are you looking forward to Humphrey's party?"
"I'm not going."
"But you have to! You're the guest of honor. You can't let us all down!"
"Did he tell you to say that? He's got some plan, hasn't he? Something to make me look a real fool. I know him!"
"He's planning a whale of a party, that's all I know. You... uh... really aren't yourself these days, are you?"
"Me? I'm fine. A little down, that's all."
"I know. I know." Sharp patted his shoulder.
"From you, Bill, this is shabby. My party's only a week away and you haven't RSVP'd."
"Not sure I can make it. You'd better not count on me." Boggs smiled insincerely at the phone panel. The Hump's egglike face beamed back at him.
"But I am counting on you. I've set my heart on this party, and, no, it just won't be right without you."
"Bill, this is not like you. You're being very ungracious. Anyone would think you were suspicious of something!"
"Sorry, I just can't give you a firm answer."
"Sheila's coming, she told me so. Oh, and tell her she can bring that young friend of hers, if she wants."
"What young friend? Eleanor's over forty."
"No, that young man... what is he, a cousin? Colleague, maybe?"
"I don't know who you mean." Boggs kept the smile firmly fixed on, but it was getting harder to keep hold of it.
"Oh, then I'm sure it's nobody who counts, or you'd know."
"Well, of course."
"It's just that I've been seeing them together, here, there and everywhere, lately. In restaurants, at receptions, heads together. Good-looking boy, too. Must be in video."
"Someone she's training, I expect."
"No doubt. Well, think about it, Bill. The party, I mean. I'll call again."
Boggs grinned tightly at the phone panel as he said goodbye. He switched off and his face collapsed into a scowl.
As he watched her staring absently into her breakfast cup, he told himself that it couldn't be important. If she'd made a friend -- just a friend -- she would have said something. She hadn't, so there was no new friend, nobody who mattered.
And if the man was more than a friend, what then? Would she be honest?
"How was it last night?"
"What?" She looked flustered.
"The switching-off. How did it go?"
"Oh! Lovely. Eleanor's house was like a garden. And she'd hired actors to do the death scenes from Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet. Mrs. Fastchuk was such a romantic. She cried through the whole thing."
"Maybe she was crying for herself."
"Of course not! After the acting there was a terrific banquet and she cheered right up. There were champagne toasts and we made a big circle and linked arms and sang Ukrainian folk songs -- Eleanor had coached us -- and the old dear just loved it."
"Had the time of her life, did she?"
"Billy, I don't know why you joke about these things. They're serious!"
"I'm much more serious than you imagine. Didn't you know jokes are the barometer of our terrors? I've been keeping my ears open for death jokes lately: I'm collecting the best of them for a column. I'm going to head it , 'Die laughing,' or is that too trite?"
"I think death jokes are horrible."
"Of course they are, that's the whole point! Listen: what did the hypochondriac have engraved on his memorial tablet?"
"What?" she asked guardedly.
"'I told you I was sick!'" He shook with laughter.
"Mail." Sheila plucked the papers from the slot and dropped them on his plate. "Got to go."
"I have several interviews. One's with Humphrey -- he said to tell you he's counting on you, by the way -- "
Boggs waved that aside. "Why would you be interviewing the Hump, of all people?"
"We're doing a piece on the trend in death ceremonies. He's one of several people we'll talk to." She peered around for her bag as if it was deliberately hiding from her.
"Sheila, what's the matter?"
"Nothing. I'm in a hurry."
"You've been funny lately. Not yourself."
"Well, if I've been funny it's your fault! You've gone all vinegar and wormwood. Never a cheerful word out of you, and always going on about death -- " She pounced on her bag and slung it onto her shoulder. "Whatever's eating you, I wish you'd get it sorted out, and soon!"