Death Muse

by David Brown

“Do you ever just stop and think about how we got here, Jack?” Malady said, turning to her colleague of so many years.


His face was stoic. “We’ve both led many lives, Malady, for many reasons. Any attempts at answering that question will result in nothing but heavily biased, inaccurate theories.”


“I know, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring. It’s an important question.”


“Well, when you have your answer, let me know.”


Malady resisted the urge to engage Jack in philosophical debate. They both grew silent for a moment and took in their surroundings. They were sitting at an outside table at a local cafe, The Sapphire Muse. It was a vividly decorated establishment, with no corner, ceiling, or seat cushion left up to the repetitiveness of manufactured goods. A mounted denim interweaving tapestry; an array of repeated portrait shots of some everyday citizen, all from slightly different angles, and with alternating color schemes; a chandelier of dull, rusted razor blades; a 17th century style bust of a two-headed cat.


“This guy likes his art,” mused Jack. “Probably just buys whatever he can find to fill that void he’s feeling.”


“Jack, people aren’t always that simple. One can appreciate art while using it as an attempt to heal. Have some compassion, we’re not butchers.”


Jack attempted to dodge the pedagogy. “We shouldn’t be seen together here, this isn’t within protocol.”


“Don’t worry. This place is a member of the public privacy consortium, we’re safe. I know it’s risky, but there’s a specific reason I asked you here. I would like to observe how you engage in this job.”


“What, like some kind of test?” Jack scoffed and raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t we long past that?”


“I need to be sure of a few things. I’m not going to say any more about it.”


They grew quiet again. Both were clearly practiced in the art of observing their environment. They looked around, seemingly casual, but with intent. A couple on a date in the corner by the bar, sharing a sandwich, shy smiles and anecdotes. The barista behind the counter, cleaning the espresso machine milk wand with a steamed towel, lost in thoughts distant from their day job. A businesswoman scanning the comms on her PDA and enjoying an afternoon espresso on a nearby outdoor table. An exceedingly mundane environment in every way, oblivious to the questionable dealings being conducted in its immediate vicinity.


“What do you think will happen to this place when he’s gone?” Jack asked. It was his turn to play the curious one, now acutely aware he was under Malady’s scrutiny.


“I assume you’ve read all the details already. You tell me”, she replied, making no attempt to hide her playfulness.


Jack rolled his eyes. “Ugh, Malady, you’re really doing this aren’t you? Alright.” Jack paused and collected his thoughts. “He doesn’t have any kids, so that’s out. He’s not married, and hasn’t been too successful with relationships, so no significant other to take over. The will is private, but from my snooping he’s not in too well with his extended family, so I doubt he’d give it over to them. I suspect he’s going to give it to one of those up-and-coming artists he seems to host in his estate. Probably one that he has an obsessive affection for that he can’t act on, either because they don’t like him, or some other restriction. I bet Mabel. And his nephew will try to start a lawsuit to take it from her, finding some law he can bend to his interpretation due to the fact that she’s a minor.”


Malady was never good at hiding her reactions, and she burst into a grin. “Very impressive, Jack. I thought you might have guessed one of the other artists he’s hosting, like Jen. But you picked up on the fact that Monroe would be very unlikely to leave a potential partner unpursued for that long. And that he’s such a romantic, pouring his passion into a promising young girl.”


Jack relaxed, ever so subtly. He passed the test. “Seems like you like the guy.”


“He is fascinating! The world will be less colorful with him no longer in it. But I believe Mabel can make up for it. She’s brilliant, and a sweetheart. What do you think of her?”


It was clear Malady was testing the extent to which Jack researched the social webs of people interconnected with the target. He could hear Malady’s voice in his head: Plucking a node from the web has complex, far-reaching consequences. Misunderstanding even one connection can cause us to lose a valuable life. And that’s not what we’re here for. We are here to save people.


“She’s young. Hard to say. I think inheriting Monroe’s fortune will free her from the burdens of pursuing the family business she’s likely to get sucked into. Good chance she’ll become a prolific artist. Seems like she has a good heart. Not sure how she’ll take his death, though. Could backfire.”


Malady’s facial features lost a bit of their optimism. “Yes, you’re very right. I worry about that, too.” Malady shifted in her chair, and sat up straight, composing herself. “But that’s a risk we have to live with. We can’t know everything, and our role here is to do well by our clients.”


Another shared silence. Jack and Malady had known each other long enough that long silences were never awkward. They knew each other before all of this, before this era of humanity had even started, when Jack was a normal, mortal politician, and Malady was the daughter of his campaign manager.


Jack took a few sips from his coffee. He didn’t really like coffee, but he needed to order something from the cafe in order to avoid suspicion, and the warm liquid was soothing on a fresh autumn day. He observed the passers-by walking on the cobblestone streets adjacent to the cafe. Although he could see out, he knew the barrier prevented them from seeing in. One of the many luxuries ensured by the outcomes of the privacy wars from a few years ago. That’s why he loved this part of town - they kept around ancient relics of pre-immortality humanity, like cobblestone walking paths, while taking advantage of all the wonderful benefits of modernity.


Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Malady inspecting him - had she? Their relationship had always been professional, but Jack couldn’t help but wonder if there could ever be more to it. In their profession, intimacy with outsiders was usually too full of lies to ever meet a person’s needs for true closeness.

“Malady?”


“Yes, Jack?”


“Do you have any recommendations on how I should go about this job?”


“No. You do you. I just want to watch.”


Jack returned his attention to the task at hand. He scanned the cafe for potentially useful objects or scenarios. The espresso machine generated high power streams of boiling water, but boiling water burns weren’t very reliable, and usually too slow.


    “The medic response time for this area is 6 minutes,” said Jack. “There are a few places Monroe goes that are longer than that, but his schedule is highly irregular, so that’s why I picked this place. 6 minutes isn’t a lot, but hey… it’s not 3,” he chuckled.


3 minutes was widely considered the “no go” zone. If medical attention was available within 3 minutes of a target’s location, guaranteed death was nearly impossible, unless you could manage a full skull crush, but that required a very specific set of circumstances. Accidental death takes time, at least 4 minutes of blood loss to the brain in the best case scenario. But 6 minutes still meant the job had to go nearly perfectly.


Jack continued to look for alternatives. There was a tile staircase separating two levels of the cafe. With well-placed oil, a slip, a cracked skull, and brain hemorrhaging could do the trick, but it was hard to predict the exact way a person would fall.


Jack looked up at the ceiling. It was an old building, and it had some nasty-looking piping that was probably not following building codes. A loosened bolt, some force to induce small fractures, and a well-timed microexplosive could lead to a few hundred pounds of metal landing square on Monroe’s head. That could do it.


“A pipe”, Jack said decidedly.


“In the kitchen, by Colonel Mustard”, quipped Malady.


Jack snorted. “Are you even old enough to know that reference?”


“Like you’ve ever played a board game!”


“I have, actually”, he said, without the playfulness or lingering speech that might have indicated that he wanted her to inquire further.


“Bullshit. When?”

 

“When I was a kid. Dad used to have some stored away. I came across them one day and convinced a friend to play ‘Risk’”.


Malady smiled a little. “That’s adorable. And look at you now, playing games with people’s lives.”


Jack ignored the sarcasm. “4th pipe from the right. It’s rusted, looks like it’s probably out of spec. I can hammer at it after hours, seed it with a microexplosive. Monroe walks under it, I time it so it lands straight on him. I think I can simulate it close enough to get the timing right. A crack like that ought to do him in.”


“Hmm…”, Malady pondered in a tone that suggested dissatisfaction. “It’s risky. Investigators might get involved.”


“Yeah, they always do for shit like that. Pipes usually don’t just fall on people, and that’s a red flag. But the microexplosives I’ve got are undetectable, and they won’t have anything to go off of. Witnesses’ll see it, the pipe’s in disrepair. They might poke around a bit suspecting foul play, but they’ll back off when they see there isn’t a strong motive.”


“No”, said Malady without a trace of indecision.


“What the fuck? Why isn’t that fine?”


“I said no.”


Jack shuffled agitatedly in his seat. “What game are you playing at?”


“No game, Jack. Just please find something different. I don’t want any risk of investigators getting involved.”


“Why not? This guy’s got nothing funky going on…”


“Jack, if you ask one more time, you fail the test.”


Jack eyed Malady curiously. He trusted her, but something was off about her behavior. He’d have to wait and see.


Jack reinspected the scene. No risk of investigators was particularly difficult. Accidental deaths are rare, so many of them did get investigated. Investigations aren’t cheap, but one discovery of foul play can prevent millions in payouts from insurance, and, more importantly perhaps, serve as a reminder to the public. No one wants to imagine their family’s faces posted all over the media labeled as the relatives of someone driven to that most irrational, desperate, broken final act.


The trouble was that the state tended to investigate deaths that appear too “clean”. The less noisy a death is, the more likely it was manufactured. So, to avoid investigator involvement it had to be messy. And messy meant a lower chance of success. It was trading one risk for another. Malady couldn’t have made it any harder for him.


Suddenly, at the back of the cafe, past the counter and the narrow hall of chairs and tables alongside the espresso bar, a figure burst in. Jack perked up and shot a look towards the back door. Malady turned more slowly, an ever-so-slight smile on her face. It wasn’t sudden because there was anything dangerous or hectic happening; the figure simply walked in with force, exuding presence. He was full of vibrant colors, from his patterned sneakers to his shining, curly black hair. He appeared tall at first, but upon further inspection, his height was augmented by his big, striped top hat, pinned with all assortments of decorations. He looked like an extension of the flamboyant wall art spread about the cafe, or perhaps its source. And, floating behind him…


“Is that… a cape?” asked Jack.


Malady stifled a giggle.


“I can’t believe this guy wants to off himself. I’ve never felt so much confidence in the first 3 seconds of seeing a person in my life.”


“Shh, Jack!”


The man began making rounds about the cafe - checking in first on the barista, then the other customers. He walked with purpose, but not haste.
Jack and Malady exchanged a few whispers, but for the most part couldn’t keep their eyes off of the figure, and Jack in particular seemed to have difficulty keeping his jaw all the way shut.


The man walked over to the both of them. “Well, I haven’t seen you two around before, welcome to the Sapphire Muse! Your home away from home, or your work away from work. Judging by the serious expressions, I’d guess you’re both here on business.”


Malady spoke up before Jack had a chance to respond. “Yes, we’ve picked up some work in the area just recently.”


“Ah, in the entertainment business, perhaps?”


“Yes, actually, good guess. A work of interactive virtual fiction,” interjected Jack, showcasing his bluffing skills to Malady.


“Fantastic! What kind? Character imprinting, or the real deal?”


“The real deal,” said Malady, with a playful smile. “I like to think character imprinting can’t quite capture me just yet. I’m sure you can relate.”
“Ha! Yes, I most certainly can.”


“We are probably only here for a few days, but we couldn’t resist the allure of the reputation of the one and only Monroe and his Sapphire Muse.”
“Ah ha! I’m glad it gets around. I certainly try!” he said with a flick of his cape, and a chuckle. “Well, welcome again, and if there’s anything I can do for you two, please don’t hesitate to ask. Oh, and if you’re around in the next 30 minutes or so, I’m baking up a fresh batch of mini bundt cakes, soaked in apple syrup. They’re to die for, if I do say so myself!” And with a bow, he was off, back behind the counter, and through the swinging kitchen door.


“Well, he is is something else,” said Jack with a trail of fascination lingering at the end of his sentence.


“He is. It’s a bit of a pity.”


“It is. But isn’t it always?”


“Mm.”


Jack and Malady paused for a moment of reflection. There was a near mysticism to their observation and appreciation of the environment. It had been burned into them from the beginning: a life taken is a piece of the world lost; never forget what you are taking.


Jack resumed his search for alternative methods. He needed something reliable, but random enough to not attract attention. As Jack looked around and observed the ostentatious surroundings, and watched the man that birthed them go in and out of the kitchen, bustling determinedly, the idea came to him.


“He’s such a renaissance man. Refined, but capable of doing everything for this place, from managing the business to making its art. I bet he’s willing to get his hands dirty when things need to get done,” started Jack.


Malady didn’t skip a beat. “That seems reasonable. Go on, I’m listening.”


“He’s also confident. Despite his obvious depression he’s so actively fighting against, he knows he’s capable, and he’ll rely on himself when the need arises. He’s the kind of person that will try to fix the sink himself before calling the plumber. Which, I might add, is a total waste of time, in my opinion. That’s what plumbers are for.”


“Stay on topic, Jack. I’m not interested in your commentary.”


“Yeesh, okay. Anyway, I’m thinking I can use this. I can trigger an accident, something that’ll make something broken, or appear broke. Something that’ll cause him to think he can fix it. And I can rig it so him fixing it is a bad idea, and leads to him doing something stupid.”
“Hmm, okay. Go on. Any specifics?”


“Gimme a sec.”


Jack looked around again. What could he use? What was different, something unique to this environment, to coffee shops? And then, it dawned on him.


“The espresso machine. A beast of a machine, full of high pressure near-boiling water, with huge water reservoirs, and a big 220V electrical outlet. A prime candidate for bad things to happen. And most people don’t try to fix their own espresso machines; most people call in for repairs. But not Monroe. He’ll try to fix it first.”


Malady seemed pleased, and a small smile crept on her face. “Very clever, Jack. How are you thinking?”


“Electrocution.” He shuddered a bit. Electrocutions were nasty business.


“Think through this carefully, Jack.”


“Don’t worry, I know. I’ve read all about Dr. Veren.” In the past, some poorly executed electrocutions have resulted in bad reputation for the assisted suicide field, Dr. Veren being the most notable. It was a failed electrocution that led to the client being only partially brain dead; unfortunately, the part that remained intact was the part that remembered the names and details of everything involved with the assisted suicide attempt.
Jack continued, “I’m going to trigger a leak in the back of the espresso machine that will cause water to drip down along the power cable. It’ll result in a pool of water forming at the bottom, near the outlet.”


“But you don’t know who’s going to use the machine; it could be the barista.”


“That’s not how it’s gonna go down. It won’t be the machine that does the shocking; that would be too obvious. I’m also going to expose the wire near the outlet by fraying it; it’s an old espresso machine, and probably has decades of wear and tear on the wires.


“I’m going to time it so the pool of water starts leaking out from the bottom of the counter during a night shift, when only Monroe is on duty.”


“Ah ha. I see you’ve done your unethical duty and snooped into their schedules.”


“Mm hmm. And Monroe, being a do-it-yourselfer, is going to see the leak and want to mop it up. And he’ll see the leak is coming from underneath the counter, and he’ll follow it. He’ll pull out the rolling refrigerator and look back there and see the huge leak. He’ll know it needs to be cleaned up, and disconnected, and he’ll see the frayed wires and know they need to be fixed up.


“But first, he’ll continue mopping the floor, confident he can avoid the wires. What he won’t see is that the wires are loosely coiled on to the back of the machine, and the second he goes back there knocking around with a mop, they’ll drop, and they’ll drop on the water.


“And Monroe doesn’t wear rubber-soled shoes.”


Jack finished with a triumphant sip of his coffee.


Malady smiled. “Quite the Rube Goldberg machine, Jack. I think that might just do.”

Planning was always the hard part. From here, the rest was just execution. Jack waited for opportune moments to slip behind the counter and cut the wires, and trigger a leak. He checked the schedule to time the leak so that the right amount of water would show up one night later that week when Monroe was by himself. And that same night, Jack invited Malady to a date at a local diner, right next door to the renowned Sapphire Muse. They got front-row seats.


At 21:15, about 20 minutes after the predicted discovery of the leak, they heard a scream, and the unmistakable sound of an electrocuting, convulsing body. They called the police the moment they heard it; not that it was necessary, given Monroe’s life monitoring chip, but it always helped the alibi. 6 minutes later, the ambulance showed up. 23 minutes later, the stretcher came out, with a lifeless corpse in the telltale black body bag. The job was done.

Jack and Malady sat for a few minutes in silence together, enjoying the rest of their bundt cakes, a small token they brought with them for the occasion.


After setting down his fork, Jack looked at Malady expectantly.


“So?”


“Well, Jack. You passed. Not that I’m surprised, but congratulations nonetheless.” Malady smiled at him cordially.


“Great. What’s my prize?” he said with his typical sarcasm.


“Don’t you know, Jack?” Now her smile broke into a grin. “It’s another job.”