Boggs thought about it. Then he shook his head, held out the glass at arm's length and poured the champagne onto the pavement. It occurred to him to shatter the glass on the ground, but he rejected that as a foolishly theatrical gesture. He replaced the glass gently on the tray. The man still stared at him without expression. Not a flicker.
"You're good, no doubt about it," Boggs told him. "I hope the Hump's paying you damn well."
Then he turned away and walked into the house by the back door. From distant rooms came the drone of voices and the sound of subdued and vaguely churchy music. Candle flames flickered even in this back corridor.
He walked quietly along to the foyer, found it deserted, and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Here he passed a series of mirrors set in gilded panels, and several bizarrely erotic pictures, which he automatically sneered at as he passed them on his way to the door of Humphrey's study. He pushed open the door and closed it behind him. The lock snapped to with a steely sound. He forced himself to go on, not to turn and grasp at the handle.
It was a large room, furnished chaotically. Humphrey Hastey sat perched on a blue satin mid-eighteenth-century divan, looking comically egg-like in his tuxedo. The latest model of air-supported business desk hovered close to his right hand. The controls to the speakers, lighting, atmosphere, security and other functions of the house, including a row of video screens, filled most of the wall next to the fireplace.
A generous and unnecessary fire burned in the grate. Above the marble mantlepiece stood a hologram of Humphrey himself taken thirty years before and about fifty pounds lighter. It was starting to blur with age, but you could still see cocky self-congratulation in every trim line.
He was sipping from a glass when Boggs came in. "Champagne?" He smiled and lifted the glass.
"Hump, you must have gone crazy. You can't think you can get away with this!" But looking at his old friend, Boggs felt nothing but baffled affection.
"D'you really think I'll take it quietly? I'll raise a rumpus, I'll howl the house down, I'll -- "
"They won't hear you downstairs, you know. This room is soundproof. But why would you want to howl at all? You could have howled when you were among all those people downstairs, and you didn't."
"I was going to simply leave. I found the gates locked."
"Well, did you ask the guard to unlock them?"
"The guard took out a gun. Do you think I'm a fool?"
Hastey chuckled, and waved at him to sit down. Boggs shook his head. "Get this straight. I can't prove a thing, since you filed no papers. But when I go down there and tell those people I never meant to suicide, it'll be all over for you. They'll know."
"Champagne?" said Hastey again, and raised his hand. From behind a tall Chinese screen stepped the servitor: if not the same man Boggs had left in the parking lot, then his twin brother. He glided forward and held out the tray.
"Don't be ridiculous!" Boggs tried to laugh, but it came out as a croak.
Hastey shrugged and took the glass himself. Boggs watched him in confusion. The servitor stepped back to the control wall and looked on serenely.
"Now, wait a minute," Boggs said.
"For God's sake, sit down! I'm tired of craning my neck to look at you."
Boggs hitched forward a gilded chair and sat down facing his friend of four decades. "I went through the records for the past year. There was nothing there for me. Or you."
"No, I didn't file."
"There'll be a whopping fine."
"They'll take it from my estate: I won't notice."
"Hump, why did the guard pull his gun? You saw it all, didn't you?" He nodded at the wall full of monitors.
"Yes, and very stealthy and sinister you looked, too! What a laugh you gave me! He showed his gun because I told him to. Of course he wouldn't have fired it."
"And the glass of champagne?"
"You poured away an excellent drink."
"All in good fun, was it?" Boggs showed his teeth.
"That's right." Hastey laughed again, then sighed. "It was to be my last, best joke. My last valiant effort to get a little fun out of life. But it wasn't as much fun as I'd hoped, except for a few moments when you were obviously rattled."
"The black borders on your notes were what got me going at first."
"Wasn't that a good idea? Subtle, I thought."
"But wasn't it somewhat over-elaborate? And didn't you tell too many people? It could have fallen through at any time."
"But it didn't, did it? As you told Sharp (and he innocently repeated to me), there is a convention that we don't discuss the approach of death, especially not with the candidate and his family. But people feel they must be extra nice to you. A lot nicer than they'll ever be again, let me tell you, after they find out their niceness was all for nothing!"
"And... Sheila? She never knew, did she? No, I thought not." He hesitated, then forced himself on. "The worst thing you did was make me doubt her. I'll never be able to forgive you for that."
Hastey shot him an odd, sideways look. "My dear friend, I had nothing to do with that. Nothing at all." He reached for a control on his floating desk. "Sorry, just a last bit of business to be tidied up. Morris!" He addressed the desk. "Tell Gosse he's fired, will you? Tell him I don't harbor serpents. Yes, just that." He switched off and sat back, tilting the glass between his fingers. Boggs watched him forebodingly.
"You're not really going through with it, are you?"
"Sure I am. That's what this party is all about. This party, this whole joke, is my gift to me. Because this is my birthday, Billy."
"Yes: you'd forgotten that, as you always do. I'm 61 today. My life is over."
"Oh -- twenty kinds of bull! You've got another forty years ahead of you. We both have."
"But not years of good health. Not years of enjoyment. I've been told I'll have to discipline myself from now on." His shoulders twitched distastefully. "Heart damage, liver damage, you name it. No more champagne. Bill, I couldn't face that. No more champagne!"
"You wouldn't kill yourself just for that! Life has plenty of other pleasures to offer."
"Don't start naming them, you'll simply bore me. And of course that's the real trouble. Boredom, you know. People used to be so amusing. Now they're predictable. All the surprises are gone." He raised the glass as if to drink. Boggs flung out a hand to stop him and Hastey lowered the glass, grinning. For a moment he looked like the mischievous boy who'd turned Billy's first college year from from dismal to unforgettable and nearly got them both expelled in the process.
"I tried to cultivate new interests. Tried a lot of of odd things -- things that would shock you, Billy Boy -- but no go. I've run out of joie de vivre, and there's no sense just hanging on, twiddling my thumbs. Hence this birthday party. This deathday party."
In one swift movement he drained the glass and set it down. Boggs stood up. The servitor stepped forward, but Humphrey waved him aside.
"I'm not bored now," he said in a surprised tone. Then he fell back against the satin upholstery.
The servitor touched a control on the desk, evoking the strains of "Crossing o'er Jordan." In a voice as dark and smooth as his face, he began speaking the eulogy.
"Well, I'm rather glad it wasn't you, Bill." Ken Sharp peered along the now brilliantly-lit driveway. They were waiting for his car to drive around to the front steps from the back of the house.
"Nice of you," Boggs said dryly.
"No, really. I was quite sorry when the news started circulating. It just didn't seem like you, somehow. And of course it wasn't. I should have guessed the Hump would go out on a laugh. He always did have a great sense of humor, didn't he?"
"Remember our college days? The tricks we pulled?" Sharp chuckled.
"Yes, we were a silly bunch. We had a lot of fun in us, then. But we've changed. You, Ken, you're still a decent sort, but the fun in you has all dried up."
"Oh, I don't know. What about you? Talk about doom and gloom! Those columns of yours -- enough to drive a cheerful man to suicide, I've often thought. Oh, here's my car."
"Yes, I know. And in the Hump's case, the fun went bad: it turned cruel. Never mind nil nisi and all that: it's true."
"Well, we're getting old. I'll be next, Bill."
"No! Don't talk that way. Read my next column. It'll be different, I promise. No more doom and gloom! It'll change your mind."
Sharp smiled at him doubtfully, waved and departed, his car pre-set for home.
Hearing his name called, Boggs turned back to the house. Sheila, glimmering in the light that streamed out of the door behind her, was hurrying down the walk as fast as she could on her spindly silver heels. She clung to the arm of the man beside her. The young man from the dance floor.
"Billy! Where have you been? Did you hear? It was a death ceremony after all, and he never told anybody. How could he?"
"He loved surprising people. In sixty years, he never learned that most people don't like surprises."
"Oh... " Even in the dark he could sense her discomfort.
"Won't you introduce your friend?" he asked quietly.
"This is George Gosse." Her tone was dispirited. "I suppose there's no use trying to hide it from you now, after what you saw. Anyway, I'm glad to stop sneaking around, I felt so furtive. It was nervewracking, Bill!"
"Sneaking -- " He cleared his throat. "Sneaking was never your style."
"You can see why I could never have him in the house. With your odd working hours, I could never be sure when you might pop in."
"Terribly sorry about that phone call the other night." Gosse spoke in a pleasant deep voice, his manner relaxed and friendly. "Your wife had warned me never to call her at home, but I'd forgotten, and I had to ask a question about the menu. When you answered I was so taken aback that I just hung up. It was rude, I know."
"Quite all right. Sheila, dear... " He put out a hand and drew her close. "What's this about a menu? What menu?"
"The menu for our party." He stared, and she laughed. "I thought you'd guessed! Our tenth wedding anniversary, of course. I've hired George to handle the food and entertainment and all. He works for Demeter."
"Worked," Gosse said. "I just got fired. It was what I'd been trying to avoid. The reason we had to meet in odd places, instead of my office, was that I was... well, moonlighting. I was in the process of setting up my own business, using my Demeter contacts to get the new company going, and... well... "
"Pirating," Boggs said.
Sheila pulled him aside and whispered in his ear. "I know it's not strictly kosher, Billy, but he's really a nice kid -- just married -- and I felt sorry for him and now I feel it's my fault he was fired."
"All right, we'll go ahead."
She hugged him in delight, and Gosse beamed.
"But on my terms. George, you may proceed with the arrangements, with this change: the guest list will have to be cut down."
"To what number?" But he'd guessed, and looked hangdog.
"Two. Her and me."
They decided to walk. Boggs set the car's route, switched it to automatic and watched it skim down the drive and out through the gate, with the smooth ride of a driverless car. They always looked like toy ducks on a pond, he thought. He was probing this notion to see if there was a column in it when Sheila came out again wearing a borrowed pair of slippers, silver shoes in hand.
As they passed out through the front gate, Boggs drew in lungfuls of the scent of lilacs. He smiled at the guard, who saluted them. Arm in arm they strolled down the street. When they came to the promenade along the river they stopped to lean on the iron railing. The city's lights made squiggles of diamond and ruby and topaz on the inky water.
"What a lovely night," Sheila said. "Life's good sometimes, isn't it? Billy, what could have made the Hump do what he did?"
"What a stupid reason! It's no reason at all. Billy, you would never... Would you?"
"Good. So do I."
They walked home, and there was no more talk of death that night.