Short story: Murdering Miss Deboo
There are very few things that’ll get me out of bed on a winter’s night. Murder is one of them.By Sean WilliamsIllustrations by Andrew Archer
“Where?” I bumped the Inspector, doing my best to get into uniform without disturbing Billie. My girlfriend is a face sculptor who loves her beauty sleep.
“Treebones House on the Big Sur coast.” The Inspector sent me the details. “I will be there in five minutes.”
The contents of the case file were already skimming down the inside of my lenses, filling my infield with dates and times. The preliminary suspect was the victim’s closest family member. Glancing at the images, one thing immediately stood out.
“They’re the same person.” I went hunting for my left boot and almost tripped over it. “She copied herself and then killed herself? Is that why we’re involved?”
“Look again,” the Inspector bumped back.
“Huh, they’re twins.” I would’ve noticed that earlier if I’d been properly awake. Bliss and Bridey Deboo were as identical as cloned calves. They were also in their 90s and lived alone. Bliss had been found dead on a road at the base of their property. An autopsy had determined cardiac arrest to be the
cause of death. There was no evidence of foul play.
Which was in and of itself mysterious. The Inspector and I had a reputation for untangling knotty d-mat related cases, and we hadn’t earned that by investigating any old case. This barely looked like a crime at all. Why was the Inspector pulling me out of bed in the middle of the night to conduct a routine interview of a grieving sibling? Why had he said murder?
Every peacekeeper has a d-mat booth in their home. As I entered mine, still tugging on my last boot, I noted another critical detail. It barely had time to sink in before lights flared around me and incomprehensible machines began their work, analysing my every atom, taking me apart, and then flinging an identical copy of me halfway around the world, where I was remade precisely as I had been, PK Kari Sargent, girlfriend of Billie Lane and occasional partner of the legendary PK Forest - who I cursed for never, ever just coming out and saying what was really going on.
Bridey Deboo, the murdered woman’s sister, had invented the very machine in which I had just traveled.
We created d-mat so there would be no highways, no car parks,
no traffic jams
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. The Hanuman Project was an international collective of scientists and engineers that had made d-mat possible. Initially used to convert carbon dioxide into more useful molecules – molecules that weren’t going to turn the world into one massive hothouse – the machine had later gone on to render planes and capitalism (to name two) dead within a single generation.
Bridey Deboo had played a key role in that revolution. The last surviving senior member of the project, she was a handsome woman in her 90s, dressed in an elegant black dress with a purple silk wrap and, incongruously, twelve-hole leather boots, who came down the front steps of her mansion to confront us with a face as welcoming as an avalanche.
“Have you arrested him yet?” she asked.
“My name is PK Sargent,” I said, ignoring the question. We’d just trudged all the way from her property’s perimeter, because her home wasn’t on the VIA network, and I wasn’t happy about it. “This is PK Forest. We would like to ask you some questions about your sister’s death.”
Her haughty air was undiminished.
“You’d better come in, then, and tell me why you’re dragging your heels.”
Treebones House smelled of old money - very old, given the world hasn’t used money for 50 years. Built on a promontory midway along the Big Sur coastline, the mansion commands spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. The spacious living room was full of stunning pieces from the Arts and Craft movement that looked as though they would collapse into matchwood if I so much as glanced at them.
Bridey perched on the edge of a chair like a bird that might take off at any moment.
“You know where Bliss was found.” Her voice was as sharp as shattered glass. “Just down the hill, on that ghastly eyesore. I don’t understand what the problem is.”
That ghastly eyesore was the Cabrillo Highway, a narrow strip of black ribboning its way along that stretch of the coast. It was a national monument, an important cultural artifact preserved from North America’s distant motorway past.
“Perhaps you could explain to us why that’s significant,” I said.
“Lawrence Huxter, that awful man,” she said. “Not only does he resist any attempt to restore the coast to its natural beauty, but he maintains the eyesore and uses it for his perverse pleasure. Honestly, the sounds you hear... PK Sargent, were you to endure what my sister and I have endured, you would believe exactly as I do.”
“Which is ... ?”
“That he lured poor Bliss into one of his diabolical death-traps and drove her to an early grave. Isn’t that obvious?”
I glanced at the Inspector, who absorbed this bizarre accusation with an expression of rapt attention. Since his face didn’t work properly, thanks to faulty nerves, I presumed that was a ploy to keep Bridey talking.
“What manner of death-trap, exactly?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know the makes or models.”
She wrinkled up like a prune that had just swallowed a lemon. “They were hulks even when I was young. I don’t understand why they aren’t crushed and buried along with the road itself. We created d-mat so there would be no highways, no car parks, no traffic jams. It confounds me that the promise has been delivered everywhere but here!”
The lady doth protest too much, I thought, wondering if she was worried less about the pristine state of the Big Sur than her pristine view.
“We are treating Bliss’s death as a crime,” the Inspector assured her.
Her face creased even further. “So why haven’t you arrested the person who did it?”
“There is a lack of material evidence,” the Inspector said. “We are making every effort to remedy this.”
“Good.” Bridey sniffed. “I’ll not rest until Lawrence Huxter is behind bars.”
“Perhaps, to further that end, we could examine the site your sister was found . . . ?”
“Of course. Follow the path. Don’t disturb anything or I’ll have words with your superiors.”
Go for your life, I thought. There were no “superiors” among peacekeepers any more than there were among anyone else. We were independent agents governed by Consensus. Bridey Deboo could complain all she liked, as long as we did our job.
Whatever that was supposed to be.
“I don’t see the murder,” I said as we let ourselves out and began the long trek down the hill. The path was steep and rocky in places. The salty air had a bite to it, and I was glad I had brought a coat.
“What do you see, PK Sargent?”
“Crazy old woman goes for a walk and has a heart attack. Seems simple enough, Inspector.”
“I wish you would refrain from calling me that, PK Sargent.” His voice lacked genuine irritation. Pretend all he liked, I knew he enjoyed it.
“Doesn’t make me wrong,” I said.
“Not in itself,” said the Inspector. “Bliss had a weak heart, unlike her sister, whose heart is perfectly healthy. There is, however, no sign of dementia in either woman.”
“So scratch the ‘crazy’,” I said. “It still fits.”
“Then there is the fact that Bliss Deboo’s DNA was found in one of Lawrence Huxter’s cars.”
“That’s weird.” I thought for a second. “Don’t tell me you’re buying the old biddy’s theory.”
Parked at a forty-five degree angle on the highway, the antique looked
like a giant predator cast in metal
“I am saying nothing of the sort. Instead, I suggest we interview the man himself.”
I agreed, although I had my doubts. If Lawrence Huxter knew what Bliss Deboo had been doing in one of his vehicles, he was unlikely to tell us. And even if she had been, how could simply being in a car cause someone to have a heart attack?
My answer was waiting at the bottom of the path.
“This is a 1978 Ford XB Falcon hardtop,” said Lawrence Huxter, stroking the vehicle’s muscular flank. “Made the same year my father was born.”
Parked at a 45 degree angle on the highway, the antique looked like a giant predator cast in metal. In contrast, Lawrence was a small, balding man with watery gray eyes and a slight stoop. He was dressed in loafers and slacks, complete with pink polo shirt and cream scarf.
“The John Goss Special Edition, I believe,” said the Inspector, bending to peer through the grill.
“Correct.” Lawrence looked impressed. “Would you like to go for a spin?”
The Inspector’s face lit up: another tactical fake. “I would like that very much.”
The back seat was too cramped for me, so I took the passenger seat on the left hand side. Lawrence explained that the car was from the Australian Protectorate. Why that was significant, I didn’t know. I was more interested in how far ahead the Inspector had arranged this meeting, how much he already thought he knew, and what he needed from me.
The car’s engine started with a rumble I could feel right down in my gut. Lawrence did something with his feet and we started to move.
I’ve ridden in wheeled vehicles before, but this was different. We weren’t driving into a hostile environment or because there were no d-mat booths nearby, or any of the equally unlikely scenarios every PK trains for. This was just for fun. Supposedly.
“You’ve been talking with the old bat, I gather,” said Lawrence as the car gathered speed and the roadway slithered beneath us.
“What do you think she said?” asked the Inspector, craning forward between the bucket seats.
“That I did it,” he said. “Her sister came down the hill to tell me off, and I buzzed her in one of the cars, frightening her to death. Something like that.”
“Was that what happened?”
“God, no. I was home and the cars were all locked up . . . except for the one that was stolen, of course.”
“One was stolen?” I repeated, surprised. My attention had been on the road, particularly the way it kinked and swerved unnervingly close to the cliff’s edge. “Which one?”
“This one,” Lawrence said, depressing the accelerator. We went even faster. I gripped the side of my bucket seat as the car snarled hard along a straight stretch, leaving my stomach in my throat and my pulse elevated. For the first time I could understand how someone with a weak heart might succumb to such an experience.
“Thrilling, isn’t?” Lawrence asked me with a smile.
I just nodded, unable to speak. Also, I didn’t want to distract him from the task at hand, which was not killing us.
“You know,” he said, “people used to adopt roads like they’d adopt children. They’d look after them and keep them clean, they’d raise money for their upkeep. Not anymore. If Bridey Deboo had her way, all roads would be thrown out into the garbage heap, like her sister. But that’s not happening to this one,” he said, pressing his palms against the steering wheel and spreading his fingers wide. “Not while I’m alive.”
Lawrence Huxter looked pretty lively for a guy who had to be as old as Bridey herself. I told myself to get a grip and stop thinking about the patch of sky straight ahead where the road suddenly switched to the left.
“What do you think happened to Bliss Deboo?” I asked him.
He glanced at me again. “It couldn’t just have been an accident?”
“‘Like her sister”, you said. “How well did you know them?”
He looked uncomfortable, as if I was forcing him to confess something shameful. “The terrible twins? Couldn’t tell them apart, but I guess I knew them a bit. Hard to avoid them, since we’ve been neighbors for 20 years. Anyone with eyes knows that Bridey resented Bliss.”
“Bliss was sick. She needed a lot of care. And Bridey . . . well, you’ve met her. She’s controlling, selfish, wants everything her way. Maybe she finally decided to get rid of Bliss. Switched her meds, pushed her down the hill, and is even now rubbing her hands together while you waste your time with me.”
“If you are right, Mr. Huxter,” said the Inspector, “then this is no waste of time.”
Maybe not, I thought, but there was still the matter of material evidence.
“Was the car damaged when it was stolen?” I asked.
“No,” said Lawrence, then we hit the left turn, which became another whole series of tight turns, and all of a sudden my stomach flipped over. Lawrence must have seen my face go green because he pulled over just in time for me to get the window down and hurl the contents of my stomach toward the hills, far away from his precious upholstery.
“Well, that was humiliating.”
The Inspector and I were walking back along the path to Treebones House, and it was a lot harder going up than going down. My heavy mood didn’t help.
“I am sorry,” said the Inspector. “It was not my intention to make you ill.”
“Then what was your intention, exactly? Bolstering the ego of an old woman who still thinks she’s important? Humouring a man who should’ve stopped playing with toy cars 80 years ago? Tell me how this exercise achieves anything.”
“There is nothing so revealing,” said the Inspector, unfazed by my grouchiness, “as a guilty conscience.”
I considered this. His lack of an ordinary face made him very good at reading those around him. If he was picking up something, I had to run with it.
“Guilty?” I said. “OK, so they both feel a measure of responsibility for what happened. Bridey Deboo failed to take adequate care of her sister, while Lawrence Huxter owned the car that may have scared Bliss to death. But that doesn’t mean either of them committed an actual crime. There’s still no reason for us to be here.”
“Our role is to keep the peace, PK Sargent, first and foremost.”
Right, and there was definitely no peace between Bridey and Lawrence. Still, that didn’t change the fact that the Inspector had woken me up for little more than a neighbourly dispute. And he had said murder.
“So what do you think happened? Someone went joyriding in a stolen car and accidentally killed the old girl?”
“The car was found next to the body.” The Inspector stopped with a thoughtful look. I knew he was really catching his breath. “It is possible the driver tried to force Bliss into the car and fled the scene on foot when she died.”
“If so, there’d be some kind of evidence . . .” I remembered the DNA found in one of Lawrence’s cars. “Huxter must have had security. Does it ID the thief?”
“Alas, no. Only that it was a woman, age unknown.”
“It fits together, then,” I said. “If the car with the DNA and the car that was stolen are one and the same--”
“Then that means we’re done here now, right? All we have to do if find out who took the car and ...”
“There is one problem with this theory, PK Sargent. Bliss Deboo’s DNA was found in the driver’s seat.”
“What?” That I hadn’t expected. “Bliss was behind the wheel of the stolen car?”
“It seems so.”
We resumed walking. I was disappointed. For a moment it had all looked very plausible. Now I had to adjust my theory given the facts at hand. Or find new facts, which seemed unlikely.
“What if Bliss stole the car?” I said. “Maybe to sabotage or destroy it. Maybe to find out for herself what the fuss was about. Whatever. This would explain why everyone’s coming out with these crazy theories. Bridey doesn’t want anyone to know that her sister was driving one of those ... what did she call them? ... diabolical death-traps. And Lawrence doesn’t want anyone to know that his precious car caused her death. So she’s accusing him of murder and he’s accusing her of murder and the truth is that Bliss was a sick old woman having an adventure that didn’t end well.”
I slipped on a stone because I was watching the Inspector, not the path. His face had gone back to being utterly blank.
As the water swirled down the drain I pondered my original theory, that Bridey had copied herself and then murdered her copy
“A simple case of misadventure,” he said, “inflamed by the enmity between two elderly rivals. Yes, that is plausible.”
We were approaching the top of the path. Treebones House loomed. In one window I could see Bridey Deboo standing with arms folded, knuckly hands anxiously clutching her elbows.
“Suicide isn’t murder,” I said, feeling sorry for Bliss Deboo but at the same time thinking fondly of Billie and bed.
“Nevertheless, I will inform her of our conclusions,” said the Inspector.
“You might like the opportunity to freshen up.”
He was right. My mouth was furry and tasted like vomit.
“And you might need back-up,” I said, glancing up at the window again, “judging by the look on her face ...”
With poor grace, Bridey gave me directions to her guest toilet, which was the third room along a long corridor lined with open doors. I looked in, of course: peacekeepers aren’t called “peekers” for nothing.
The first room was a well-lit bedroom, enormously opulent in purple and pink, with a bed that put some bouncy castles to shame. It was spotlessly neat, which made me wonder how the old girls had kept house. Did they have a cleaner who came in to look after them? Did the terrible twins treat them like servants?
The next room was another bedroom, much smaller than the first, with the curtains drawn and containing nothing but a single bed and a tiny dresser. The bed was unmade, the sheets in a tangle and the duvet pushed back, revealing a hollow just large enough for a small person to lie. This room hadn’t been cleaned. The air smelled strongly of old woman.
The sound of Bridey’s voice grew distant but no less strident as I closed the bathroom door behind me.
I washed my face and rinsed my mouth, doing what I could to make myself presentable. As the water swirled down the drain I pondered my original theory, that Bridey had copied herself and then murdered her copy. It happened sometimes - the most obvious d-mat crime, and one of the easiest to commit if you have a private booth, as the Deboo’s did. Most people do it out of desperation, seeking psychological or sexual compatibility but finding, inevitably, that they possess flaws that are invisible until externalised. We hate ourselves that much more readily when we become someone else.
But of course unwanted duplicates predate d-mat by thousands of years, as Lawrence Huxter had suggested. Bliss and Bridey had been physically similar but mentally very different. I couldn’t imagine how it would feel for Bridey to be separated from the person she resented but had kept close for all her long life. Would she ever be happy with a verdict of misadventure or would she fight it to the last?
I realised then that I could no longer hear any sound of arguing. Perhaps Bridey was more reasonable than I had expected.
Or . . .
What was it Lawrence had said about garbage heaps?
I hastily dried my face on a lime-colored towel embroidered “BD”, and cracked open the door. On feet as light as I could manage, I tiptoed along the corridor to the second door and looked inside again.
Just as I remembered. One pristine room fit for an absent queen, and another that was little more than a closet but looked as though it was still inhabited.
“PK Sargent? PK Forest is waiting outs...”
The voice came from the end of the long hallway, and cut off in mid-sentence. The mistress of the house had caught me peering into her bedroom.
I turned to face her and said, “Bliss?”
Seeing her face crumple was like watching a time-lapse film. She aged 10 years right then, and she had been old already.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she stammered. “I am Bridey ...”
“No, you’re not. You’re Bliss. You switched places, her mind for yours, using your private booth. You already had the same genetic material, so that made it easier. And the autopsy clearly showed Bliss’s bad heart, so no suspicions were raised when Bridey turned up dead. But you’re still sleeping in your own bed. Old habits die hard. How about Bridey, Bliss? Did she die hard too?
I was right, and I knew it. And she knew it too. But she wasn’t going down without a fight.
“Bridey thought she was so smart,” Bliss said, her voice a shadow of her sister’s, the tyrant of Treebones House. “She took all the credit for my work on the Project, and she made sure I never escaped from her ... but she couldn’t stop me thinking.”
“And then Lawrence Huxter came into your lives,” I said. This was the missing piece. Nothing had made sense until I had this. “He said he would help you escape.”
“We’re in love,” said the old woman, and her eyes were glassy with tears. “We were going to elope without her.”
At 90, I thought. But who was I to disavow her this? Once upon a time, my own relationship would have been considered impossible. Besides, it made sense.
“That’s why your DNA was in the car. That’s why she hated him and the road. You put your sister in your sick body and ... she panicked and died?”
Bridey’s face clouded. “Anger killed her, not fear. She got out of the house that night, intending to kill Lawrence as he drove by. I went searching for her in the car. It didn’t take me long to find her and get rid of the gun ...”
“But then you made a mistake.” This I could see as though I was standing there, watching. “You called the PKs for help without moving the car first. Then you had to find a way to account for it. Hence accusing each other. Deflecting any possibility that you and Lawrence have been working together. Clever.”
It was clever, a plan worthy of the coldest criminal mastermind, undone by a word or two, and by one simple oversight.
“I told the housekeeper not to come,” Bliss said, “but I should have known you might search the house. It’s just ... her room. I can take over her body, since it’s so much like mine, but she still ... her memory ... the empty spaces ...”
Bliss’s real voice was absent of all demands and class. She had years of being a victim, and of being imprisoned. Maybe, I thought, part of her wanted to be caught.
It would be a simple matter to take her freedom away from her again. All I had to do was call the Inspector and initiate an arrest.
Instead, I thought again of Billie. Two people had conspired to find a happy life together. Sure, they had broken the law. Sure, it had resulted in a death. But these lovers weren’t fueled by reckless passion. They hadn’t intended murder. And being in their 90s, they weren’t likely to survive a trial, let alone a custodial sentence. Which isn’t to say that nonagenarians get carte blanche on any criminal whim that takes their fancy, but ...
Slow tears traversed the complicated terrain of her cheeks. I had a feeling Bliss Deboo wasn’t going to go unpunished, no matter what I did.
“Sort out the rooms,” I told her. “Wait a month before doing anything with Lawrence.
“Whatever you did to swap bodies, get rid of it. Don’t do anything like this ever again, and in return I’ll keep the Inspector off your backs.”
Her hands came up in front of her, as though clutching at something she was afraid might slip away. “Of course. I understand.”
I wondered if she did. People like Bridey Deboo could make life a living hell, but in death they were even worse. While Bliss lived, so too did Bridey: her status in the Hanuman Project would be untarnished. Ghosts aren’t readily exorcised from our minds, particularly when everyone else believes in them too.
Leaving Bliss Deboo in her stolen body and empty house, I joined the Inspector at the base of the steps. We had a long walk ahead of us, back to the perimeter.
“Thank you once again for your assistance, PK Sargent,” he said. “I am grateful, as always.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I said, wondering how much of an open book I was to him, if he knew it all just by looking at me.
“On the contrary,” he said. “Without your level-headed appraisal of the situation, I might have leapt to the wrong conclusion entirely concerning the death of Miss Deboo.”
I almost corrected him, thinking murder, but caught myself in time. If I said it now, it would be on record.
“The strangest thing about this case,” he went on, “is that the body’s cerebral tissue contained micro-lesions that could not be explained. It was possible that Bliss’s mind had been altered in a way that had led to her death, but I knew you would find a more reasonable explanation for the events that took place here.”
I studied him hard. He was letting nothing through his mask at all. Yet I sensed something more, something he wanted to say.
Or, maybe, something he ought to say, but didn’t want to.
He knew it all, I realised, and thought I had made the right call. Now we had simply to make it official.
“Bliss - I mean Bridey - and Lawrence Huxter are an item,” I said. “The sister got upset. Maybe she was going to drive the car off a cliff. I don’t know. But that’s all it was. You dragged me out here for a domestic dispute, Inspector. Thanks for that.”
“I am sorry, PK Sargent. To make it up to you, I will write the report.”
“I accept your apology,” I said, knowing he’d find a way to bury the evidence. “Anyway, murders are getting old, these days. It takes something a lot more exciting than that to get my blood running.”
It was his turn to ask, “Like what?”
“Well, I’ve now thrown up on four of the seven continents. That’s not something everyone can say.”
The Inspector gifted me with one of his rare smiles, and we walked on to the d-mat booth, leaving the past behind.