"I think what's really bothering me is the potential for abuse in this thing."
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 hours."
"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 forgery?"
"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 on?"
"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 afterwards."
"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 bloody.'"
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 Grace."
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 premises?"
"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 Catering.
"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 far.
"Fraud," Boggs muttered.
"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 termination."
"Good point," Sharp said.
Boggs sniffed. "To equate birth control with death control -- that's stupid. There's no comparison."
"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 like it.
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 all."
"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 things."
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 case...
"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 kinder."
"That! Yes, I remember. She wasn't all there, was she?" Sheila stared at him. "Why? Did you know them?"
"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 border!"
"The printer's been repaired, so it isn't that. Perhaps he does it to all his friends?"
"No: just to me. I've asked around."
"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 decrepitude!"
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 it."
"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?"
"Nobody." He watched her.
"What do you mean?"
"When I answered, nobody spoke. I heard him catch his breath. Then he switched off."
"Now, that is odd. No image?"
"No, it was blank."
"But who would do that?"
"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 entire body.
"Something is 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 it."
"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 before?"
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.
"Lonesome?" she asked.
"Hop in." She lifted the coverlet. "You look more cheerful, though. Stomach better?"
"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!"
end of part 3