It was a splendid party, and up to a point Billy Boggs did have a wonderful time.
Sheila had never looked lovelier. Deciding to go all out in the matter of traditional evening dress, she had unwrapped one of her treasures, a formal gown that had been her grandmother's.
"This was the height of haute back in the 1970s," Sheila said as she twisted to inspect the drape of the dress in back. It was a slim silver sheath glimmering with sequins and crusted with crystal beads that swayed and faintly chimed.
"But can you sit down in it?"
"Yes, if I'm very careful."
Boggs rented a tuxedo from a theatrical costumer and thought he looked surprisingly distinguished in it, although the crimson cummerbund did draw attention to his middle. He drew himself up and sucked in his stomach, and the mirror showed him a man of substance and dignity.
His cheerful mood seemed indestructible. As for the rumors of an affair... well, people had malicious tongues, and Humphrey's was sharper than most. With this in mind, Boggs was cool when the Hump greeted them on their arrival at the house.
The party was held in Humphrey's own home, a big, sprawling, two-century-old mansion surrounded by elaborate gardens and crammed with a hodgepodge of expensive though peculiar furniture and art objects. He had a mania for collecting that was more energetic than disciplined, as Boggs had often pointed out.
"It shows why you never married," he'd said on one occasion. "You've put all your mental and physical energy into assembling people and things and moving them around to suit yourself. The relationship of marriage requires more humility and self-restraint than you're capable of."
On this occasion, however, Humphrey seemed eager to efface himself and focus everyone's attention on his oldest friend. With his own voice he announced Bill and Sheila on the speakers as they arrived, and at once, with uncommon tact, walked away and allowed them to be the centre of the crowd that flocked from the rooms all around.
All their friends and acquaintances were there. Literary rivals, media colleagues, old school pals, even Billy's few relatives. Ken Sharp handed him a glass of champagne and told him what a fine figure he cut in that tuxedo. The daily and monthly editors hovered and said fervently and uncharacteristically kind things about his latest articles. Two women, friends of Sheila's, kissed him affectionately.
Boggs beamed with genuine pleasure at first. But after fifteen minutes of this friendly uproar his face began feeling stiff and unnatural. He started to wish he hadn't come after all. He was relieved when Humphrey, now present only in voice, announced dancing to a live twentieth-century style band in the large drawing room. For the more sedate the treat was to be a tour of the private art collection, conducted by Humphrey himself.
Hand in hand, Billy and Sheila wandered over to the buffet. Here they found waitpersons in black dresses and white aprons, instead of overalls, and with silly bits of white frill on their heads. They served a variety of foods on china dishes.
Boggs, who had studied the previous century thoroughly, knew what all the concoctions were, and he noted with a sniff that Humphrey had, as usual, mixed old and new in a careless mishmash.
"Look at that! Beef shishkabob -- must have cost him the earth! -- and synpro croquettes right next to them. And that white pasty stuff beside the jellied miso, that's potato salad."
"Hm." Sheila sampled a spoonful. "I think I can guess why it went out of style."
Nearby stood silver urns of real coffee and tea, and rank upon rank of sea-green champagne bottles. Boggs felt his mood soften again. He was actually enjoying himself. The food was delicious, even the historical dishes, and a haunting melody by some long-dead folk singer floated in from the drawing room. The subdued lighting mellowed him still more. In fact, most of the lights had been turned off and replaced by clusters of tall white candles.
"Hump really has no sense of period," Boggs said. "They didn't live by candlelight in the late twentieth century, they -- " He glanced at Sheila, but she wasn't there. She was not in the dining room. He looked this way and that among the crowd, and then he froze.
Just behind the row of coffee urns, standing like a black pillar, he saw the servitor.
Seeing him, Boggs realized why he hadn't spotted him before. The man was dressed exactly like most of the male guests, in traditional black and white. At the level of his waist he carried a small silver tray, richly embossed and scalloped, and on the tray stood a twinkling crystal glass. It was three-quarters full of a pale golden liquid.
Boggs stood very still and looked into the man's face. A dark, quiet face that might have been dead or carved of wood, except that the eyes were open, and black, and they glittered. And they looked straight into his.
Boggs felt his heart contract with a sickening boom, and then begin to pound. A drop of sweat ran down past his ear. He felt cold to the bone. Oddly enough, at that moment his worst fear was that he would drop his plate from shaking hands and make a disgraceful and public mess on the floor. He took three steps and set the plate down on a table near the door. Looking back, he saw the servitor moving slowly through the crowd towards him.
He bolted into the next room. A wave of panic hit him then and turned him blind. The last time he'd felt like this, fifty-five years ago, he'd heard Something stir under his bed and knew Something was crouching there in the dark, waiting for him to put his foot out.
Then panic receded, or he was able to force it back from the front of his mind. He felt adult again. The lapse had lasted only two seconds, when he'd stood and glared wildly about, chest heaving. Now he took a deep breath and went in search of Sheila.
The enormous drawing room was crammed with people from wall to wall, couples bobbing around in time to the music, or sometimes not in time. A noisy, baffling place, made more mysterious by the changeable candlelight.
Finally he spotted Sheila three yards away, standing against the room's central pillar, talking to a stranger. The man was perhaps twenty-five years old, perhaps younger; tall, slim and strikingly handsome in a polished, fashion-conscious style, and the look in his eyes was anxious and questioning. Boggs saw all that instantly.
Sheila was speaking urgently, that was plain, though he couldn't hear the words. Her eyes ate up the man's face; her hand kept reaching for his sleeve. Then, as she glanced around nervously, her eyes caught Billy's. Such a look of guilt and panic flooded her face that his chest jerked with sudden pain.
She was... It was all true.
While he stared, she seized the man's arm and rushed him into the jigging crowd. Her silver dress flickered like a trout in a stream, and then was gone.
He became aware then that the crowded room was not crowded where he was. There was a space around him. Nobody came near, and nobody looked at him. He began to walk, moving his eyes deliberately from face to face. Bland smiles and glazed eyes deflected his glance. If any eye by accident met his, it slid away at once. He had become -- not exactly invisible, but untouchable. His impending death made a glass shell around him.
"As far as they're concerned, I'm already dead," he muttered.
Savagely he shoved the thought of Sheila into the back of his mind and kept it there. He wasn't afraid, now, so much as angry. Even when the band swung into the soft, sweet strains of "Crossing O'er Jordan," he didn't panic again. He looked for the servitor who carried death on a tray, and saw him standing near the door to the dining room, turning his head slowly this way and that, searching. Quickly, but not in a rush, Boggs walked out of the room, through the foyer and out of the big front door.
The sky was a satiny dark blue. The air was cool and scented with lilacs. Boggs noted these things as he marched down the driveway towards the gate, a pair of tall, elaborately scrolled openwork panels in the iron fence. The gate was closed and locked when he reached it. At least, it wouldn't budge and he believed it was locked: it was hard to be sure of anything in the dark. The gateway should have been lit, he knew, but all the grounds were drowned in darkness. At the centre, the house was a looming crag starred with light.
Beyond the gate, a wide border of trees and shrubbery screened the property from the streets around. The night was quiet, traffic a murmur on distant highways.
Boggs squeezed his eyes shut and tried to think. Why would the gates be locked? Well, against burglars, of course. There would be guards somewhere around too, and alarms on the fence. But those were to keep people from getting in. Why should they stop someone from getting out?
He guessed the gate was eight feet high, but with all those iron tendrils it couldn't be too hard to climb, even for a sedentary sexagenarian. He put out a hand to the bars... then hesitated and stepped back into the shadow of a lilac bush. Something had moved in the shadows on the other side of the gate.
In a moment a uniformed guard came into the edges of light cast by the house. A dog on a leash strained from his hand. It poked its muzzle through the bars and growled. The man drew his gun, a solid and gleaming object, unmistakable even in the half-dark.
With exquisite care, Boggs eased backward until the shrubbery cut off his view of the gate. Then he started around the perimeter of the grounds, looking for another way out. It was clear to him, now, what the plan was. He would be shot, and the gun placed in his hand. An unusual method of suicide these days. People would say how typically old-fashioned it was.
But the documents! The Intent-to-Suicide forms! Boggs felt a sudden surge of hope, then shook his head. They hadn't filed the forms (he avoided naming "them" in his thoughts) because they had anticipated his suspicion. There were ways to alter records after the fact, though: a serious crime and expensive to buy, but it could be bought.
He found no way to climb the fence, which was as tall as the gate and made of straight iron bars. From time to time he heard footsteps on the other side, and the quick panting of a dog. By the time he reached the back of the house, where the vehicles were parked, he knew he was trapped. He was unsurprised to see a row of vans drawn up near the back door, with the white Charon logo (a hand grasping an oar) clearly visible on the black paint.
By the side of the nearest van a shadow stirred, separated and became a man dressed in black, his chest a flash of white. Something in his hands caught the starlight. Smoothly he approached, halted in front of Boggs, respectfully bent his head, and presented the tray.
Boggs stood frozen a moment, not quite breathing. It never occurred to him to strike the man or otherwise put up a physical fight. About the servitor there was an air of something that could not be fought physically, something as impersonal and elemental as death itself.
He reached out and picked up the glass. The gesture was one of bravado. It was a beautiful object, he told himself, hand-cut, heavy, costly. Its facets glittered like diamond. He looked into it, sniffed it: he could smell the champagne.
It was both terrifying and absurd that these few millilitres of chilled liquid were all that lay between him, alive on this earth, and... nothingness. This glassful of wine was more powerful than the biggest bomb that ever was. For Billy Boggs, it had the power to wipe out the cosmos. The ultimate power, and all here in a little glass.
"And after all," he muttered half aloud, "what have I got left to live for?"
The dark servitor stared at him, motionless as a graven image.
end of part 4