In the Journal of Speculative Fiction, Kyanite Press (Issue 5/Vol. 1/May-June 2019) pages 64-75.
In a world of universal surveillance, who gets away with murder?
By Cecily Winter
Not only was the street surveilled, the store-window frontage was entirely clouded except for the white sheet of paper inside that read: “Help Wanted. Apply Within.”
Divina returned to the door framed in a gray-concrete porch. The rumor could have been bogus, but she sure hoped it wasn’t.
She stared at her boot toes scuffed down to the raw leather then blinked at the glass engraved with the words MORTUARY SUPPLIES. For a subliminal beat the letters shifted to read MURDER BOUTIQUE. It wasn’t a rumor.
The franchise originated on the dark net, but boutiques were said to operate on the down low in most cities to serve, primarily, voluntary-suicide clients, and Divina had no quarrel with that. Nor—since two of her exotic-dancer friends had been brutally murdered and she’d retired from the pole double-quick—did she object to bloody vengeance. Revenge, greed, ambition, and lust were elements of the human condition, and what penalty short of death was ever going to act as a total deterrent?
With the nation under universal surveillance and a homicide conviction carrying a mandatory life sentence, murder typically lay beyond the courage of the average Joe hoping to even a score or rake in a profit. Still, Divina felt a frisson of something like shame, or maybe it was regret for what might have been, when she thumbed the old-fashioned brass latch and a bell jangled as if she’d been swept back in time.
The guy who stepped out from a heavy green curtain to meet her wore a tweed jacket—with visible leather elbow patches—and brown corduroy pants. His thin gray hair curled behind his ears. Across the entire planet, the least imposing look for a murder salesman.
“I’m here to apply for the job,” she said.
He canted his head. “Which job?”
She blurted, “The Murder Boutique job.”
“You’re the first to read that sign in a very long time. Please step inside.” He gestured to a chair behind the curtain he’d looped up. “Ms.?”
“Paradise,” she said, “Divina Paradise.” She ducked under the curtain and took a seat.
His thin lips stretched into a wolfish smile, complete with overlong upper canines. “Your stage name, I presume?”
Had he watched her pole-dancing routine? Maybe. She’d always focused on the client’s third and inward-looking eye. “It’s my real name, I kid you not,” she said.
“It’s a few notches up from mine,” he said. “In confidence, it’s Clemence Nubbles, but there will never come a time you mention it outside these premises, or, indeed, my business. Murder’s not everyone’s cup of tea despite the entire population’s addiction to violent entertainments from sports to video games.” He took a seat across from her. “Apart from your unusual sensitivity to visual stimuli, what makes you think you’re qualified to join our team, Divina?”
“I’ve worked a lot of jobs: primary teacher, bartender, cosmetics rep, exotic dancer, and most recently nursing-home assistant. You know, the place they shut down after the Angel-of-Mercy freak killed off half the patients.”
“Ten patients, I believe. You don’t believe in mercy killing?”
She leaned forward. “I do. But this creep had been stealing and killing them to cover it up. Some said he raped the poor dears, too. That’s not mercy in my book.”
“Those misbehaviors never circulated. Indeed, we in the business considered Jack Atkins a modern-day hero.”
“The administrators hushed it up to avoid lawsuits, but all of us knew Jack was fiddling with bank accounts and pawning jewelry. He didn’t even have an addiction excuse. He’s total scum.”
“Well, we live and learn. You’ve an empathetic spirit, Divina, but, tell me, did you ever watch a person die?”
“Besides a couple of girlfriends who overdosed when I was a kid, maybe four or five seniors—from, you know, the normal stuff.”
He nodded. “I believe your varied experiences may find new outlets in our busy little enterprise, if you find you’re comfortable with our services.”
She held her breath and nodded.
He sat a moment with his chin in the hollow of his palm, his fingers cupping his nose. “Well, you know that our major business is euthanasia, or voluntary suicide. We offer two packages. The economy provides the necessary medication only. The other is full service with a staff member on hand to administer the final dose of barbiturate if necessary and arrange the scene. Everyone begins in that department.”
“What do the other departments specialize in?” she asked.
“In a word, murder. All those packages come economy or full service. We provide weapons; poisons; accident scenarios; etcetera. Oftentimes, our personnel participate. They are trained in executing the assigned task efficiently, disposing of evidence, and hiding the fact of homicide if such is deemed necessary for the client’s protection.”
“How do you recruit the … personnel?”
“We promote from the sales force, though most come to us with work experience closely linked to death—soldiers, policemen, physicians.”
Divina tingled all over. Could she do it? Kill someone and arrange to dissolve a corpse in acid or whatever? She let out her breath and asked, “Don’t the killers—the assigned personnel—suffer from PTSD or guilt?”
“We offer mental-health counselling to all staff—and for any purpose, even marital strife. Are you married?”
“Not yet, maybe never.”
“It’s not for everyone,” he said. “Of course, in this line of work there is a need for total discretion. Which brings me to dress requirements.”
“You mean, business attire?” She brushed a palm over the shaved side of her scalp wondering how long her hair would take to grow out and the rest lose its purple highlights.
“Exactly. Your hair and facial piercings identify you too precisely. Our aim is virtual invisibility in public. If you were to accept employment, I suggest you disengage yourself from the metal ware and acquire, say, a day dress with long sleeves to cover the tattoos.”
She shuffled one sleeve to her wrist as he said, “I still see the ink peeking from your sleeve. May I ask the theme?”
“Garden of Eden. Flowers and serpents, mainly, in iridescent inks.”
“How apropos for your dance career, but, for us, business casual is best,” he said. “A pant suit if you prefer, but in neutral colors and nothing black. Black is too grim, too funereal, you understand?”
Most of her skin was technicolor but every item of clothing she owned was black, or a faded shade of black. She calculated her chance of raking up enough cash or credit to buy even one outfit. Only if she used the rent money—again.
Mr. Nubbles said, “I can arrange the prepayment of your first paycheck.” He raised his eyebrows—bushy and avuncular. “Cash if that’s more useful.”
“Cash would be fantastic.”
“The entire amount?” he inquired. “Which would be £1,000 less deductions?”
“Please,” she pleaded. If she’d stayed limber, which she hadn’t, she might have sweetened her gratitude by offering Mr. Nubbles the Cobra, her specialty lap dance.
“It’s no problem, really,” he said, a flush creeping up his cheeks.
Was the guy psychic? Suppressing a smile, she said, “That’s awesome. Will there be commissions?”
“No commissions. I take the client’s payment posthumously, you see.”
“You mean …?
He extended his hands wide and beamed wolfishly. “Indeed, I’m no culler of souls. Rather, our clients take out an insurance policy on their own lives on my behalf. The monthly premium is entirely within their means, and our posthumous payment, whether negligible or millions, presents no impediment to any client planning to acquire funds through bequests, bank robberies, or whatever scheme is held in abeyance by virtue of a figure, or figures, blocking the path to wealth.”
“How do you know the customers won’t stop paying the premiums after the … the deed is done?”
“We have an algorithm that automatically pays any overdue premium before a policy is slated to lapse. We never need to deal with second lapses.”
That sounded fatal, but it was a murder-for-hire racket. “What if the satisfied client lives another 50 years?”
“Oddly, Murder Boutique clients tend to die young. I believe it’s a matter of anxiety, the gnawing guilt or fear of human or divine punishment.” A smear of a smile nudged at his lips. “We don’t offer them mental-health counselling!” He leaned forward confidentially. “You know, more than half die in ordinary traffic accidents.”
The job was probably going to be tougher than she’d anticipated, but she was hardly a hot-house flower; from the age of 16 she’d ridden and maintained her own Harley Femme 750. She said, “I really need a job. When could I start?”
“As soon as you’re outfitted, but one more thing,” he said, reaching for a sheaf of pages on a shelf behind his chair.
He handed her an untidily stapled booklet of maps showing the city’s surveillance grids. The tiny non-coverage areas were shaded gray. She’d been around. She already knew a few of them, including the Murder Boutique door.
“It’s proprietary information,” Mr. Nubbles said. “Always consult it before you begin a job, and never remove your copy from this establishment.”
Installed in her own booth, with desk, chairs, file cabinet, and system, Divina’s first sale was an economy euthanasia. The client’s wife was in hospice care after years of the treatments that bankrupted them. He was gaunt, with sticky, frog-like eyes. He sat on the chair across the desk like an unstringed marionette held up by those sticky eyes glued to her face. The insurance was minimal—£5 a month until he kicked it. As a retired physician, he had no qualms about administering the sedative and barbies and didn’t care if he was arrested as long as his wife was saved further pain.
He avoided a life sentence by passing away from a massive heart attack on the scene, and Mr. Nubbles congratulated Divina on filing the insurance paperwork expeditiously. To celebrate, he hosted a champagne party in his own office—far bigger than hers and decorated with several muskets, deployed on occasion, he said, to fox forensics investigators.
The other three assistants, all guys, joined them for the bubbly. She’d made it to the Murder Boutique glass ceiling. Breaking through could wait; she was puffed up by her success and fell like a schoolgirl into breathless infatuation with her colleague, Tiernan. He was fresh off Aer-Lingus, a senior transfer from the Dublin branch, with a voice that danced over vowels and consonants like music.
She enjoyed her job; her drab but comfortable outfits; and the occasional glimpse of steamy Tiernan. How much better could life get?
It got better. Tiernan was a tiger who kept her breathless and aching for the very air of him. True, he was married but not exclusively. Divina knew she wasn’t the only femme keeping clean sheets for him but she’d never wanted full possession. Charmers always caused trouble in the end.
A string of successful euthanasia deaths—some not clearly voluntary—resulted in her first promotion. Her booth walls remained unadorned, but Mr. Nubbles replaced her chair with a soft-as-butter leather throne she could have happily slept in. And Tiernan hooked up her system to the virtual warehouse of murder paraphernalia.
She scrolled through the weaponry list—from drones to finger guns—then surveyed the virtual pharmacy with every poison known to man, as well as venoms, viruses, bacteria, nerve-agents, and noxious gases. The deadly-accident warehouse remained off limits, but she planned to gain access; she planned to bust right through the ceiling glass.
She gazed expectantly at her first economy murder client, a flashy Asian with fiery red hair artful in tortoiseshell combs. Something like black-mamba skin hugged her body at every curve.
She carefully arranged herself in the empty chair, crossed her legs, and said, “You screw this up, and I’m coming for you with a pack of rabid attorneys.”
“We don’t screw up, Mrs. Park, I assure you,” Divina said without heat. “What can we do for you?”
Mrs. Park uncrossed her legs. “My husband wants a divorce. And alimony. The worthless tapeworm. I’ve been an investment banker all my life. And I’m good at it. What’s he good at? Nothing but the sack. If he wants to get out, fine. But he’s not taking so much as a pair of underpants I paid for.”
She panted from the exertion of articulating her extreme loathing.
“So,” Divina asked, “you want a do-it-yourself, where we provide the weapon—or poison—your choice, then you discover the corpse, manage the cops and so forth?”
“Better if someone else found him; me, I wouldn’t stop laughing.”
“Someone in your organization?” Divina asked.
The woman sucked on her teeth, created deep creases in her upper lip. “He never goes there. The casino.”
“Casinos are good when they’re busy. A silencer, a dark corner. You’d have to wear a disguise to avoid recognition. But if the subject already filed for divorce, you’d be suspect number one.”
“What if I don’t do it myself?”
Divina’s heart fluttered. A full-service murder op was as high as her rank allowed, and she rattled out the deal: “Our full-service option includes a death or several deaths and evidence disposal. Gone forever. Untraceable regardless of forensic procedures.”
“How much more?”
“Monthly premiums that double the insurance payout.”
“Let’s go with that.”
“First,” Divina said, “the paperwork.”
If he lived so long, Mr. Nubbles would be thrilled with the pay-out, but Mrs. Park was fired to outlast a nuclear winter.
With some reservations regarding Divina’s relative inexperience, Mr. Nubbles assigned her to the job. She’d told him gambling wasn’t her style, but, on the plus side, she had the bod and confidence to carry the glamor for few spins at the roulette table where Mr. Park installed himself at the close of every night’s entertainment. She’d surveilled him an entire week—maybe overkill—but it was her first murder gig.
He was actor-handsome, not tall but big enough to fill his high-end suit and shoes. Flanking him were a couple of flawless raven-haired teens. But they chugged champagne like pros, so probably not. There was no coke dust under their nostrils this evening, but there usually was.
Despite her ink that bedazzled every guy Divina ever dated and a facial transformation via cosmetic art, she was totally out of her league when it came to those book-end lovelies. Twins, obviously. It’d have to be all three.
A fixed spin earned her a stack of chips, and she cozied up to one of the girls by stroking her cheek with a gloved fingertip. Divina adored elbow gloves; this pair discovered in a charity store for neglected kids.
“What you say,” she said breathily, “we party in my room?”
The girl smirked and leaned close. “Why not?”
Mr. Park looked, well, interested. And the other girl was scraping Divina’s chips into her own sparkly purse. God bless her needy heart.
In the room she’d rented with Mr. Park’s credit card—courtesy of Mrs. Park—Divina put on music to rouse the savage beast. The champagne was chilled. When a girl grabbed her arm to pull her to the bed, Divina purred, “I get the biggest kick from watching.”
She’d watched porn, of course, and engaged in threesomes, but their show was instructive. The girls played to the camera, only there was no camera. Divina had seen to that.
The twins adjusting their underwear, Divina handed the champagne bottle to Mr. Park, sweaty from the marathon, who reclined on pillows. Then she kneeled by the glass-topped end table to fix the lines. There was a trick to gripping the door key card with gloved fingers.
She asked the twin practically drooling into her hair if she could pay her and her sister to disappear, but she only giggled and said, “Our turn to watch, Lady Bountiful.”
Divina had no choice. She invited Mr. Park to the end table. No sooner was he on his bare-arsed knees with a straw stuck up his nose than the girls slid off the bed to snag their own lines. Which was optimal because stopping three hearts with H would have been pretty tricky if anyone had shown a little patience.
She didn’t pose the bodies, didn’t touch them at all. Only took one shot on her burner phone for Mrs. Park to enjoy.
She emptied the baggie over the carpet and scattered a bunch of Mr. Park’s clothes and toiletries here and there. She’d left no fingerprints and not one fallen hair. Her French knot was practically glued to her scalp. She collected her raincoat from the closet to hide her arm tatts and hair from the exit vid.
She slipped into the night from a fire exit whose alarm bleated softer than an infant’s snore. She didn’t hurry to the river, where she dropped the baggie and her gloves into the murky water. It was peaceful out there and a little chilly, but she was hot enough to burst. Wow!
Divina became a murder-package sensation, and Tiernan divested himself of several playmates to focus his energies on her. Well, to be honest, on her and his wife, who was pregnant.
“Look,” he said one morning, leaning on Divina’s wall while they waited for clients to show, “why don’t we get out of here?”
That Irish jig in his voice had been on mute for quite a while, and she said, “I’m working.”
“I don’t mean this minute. I was thinking we’d go away, start from scratch.”
From scratch? What did that mean? At this point, how could she be ignorant of anything new he had on offer? “Doing what?” she asked.
“Dining out, going to concerts, museums—”
“Your wife does those things.”
“Not when there’s a kid she won’t. I never wanted one.”
“You can’t avoid your responsibilities.”
“I’m freaking sure I can.”
“I’m not cool with that, Tiernan.”
“I’ve a proposition. Hear me out.”
She sat back in the cool embrace of the leather throne. “Okay.”
“We moonlight, just this one time.”
“What’s the gig you have in mind?” Though, of course, she could read his mind. His brain didn’t belong in the skull of a rocket scientist.
“Before the kid’s born, let’s take out Ainslee. The life insurance on her is phenomenal. We could buy a Murder Boutique franchise in Cannes, Bangkok, whatever.”
“I couldn’t murder someone I know.”
“You don’t know her. That’s the point. You know me.”
Divina bit her lower lip, discovered she missed the ring that used to remind her to pout at her exotic-dance fans.
“Think about it,” he said, leaning down to kiss those very same lips and forcing them apart with his tongue, like a gal’s mouth was the magic portal he needed to replenish his superpowers. Which it was, in her case.
When a client’s arrival drove him back to his own office, Divina smoothed her rumpled skirt and paced. Could she do it? It would be two deaths, and the murder of a kid—even a kid unborn—far outranked its mother’s in terms of social blowback. All homicide convicts received a life sentence—up to and including the very last breath—but kiddie-murderers tended to breathe their last way faster than most.
She had no quarrel with the right to choose; women owned their own lives. But any kid that made it through the birth canal had rights to a life with caring parents, food, education, and medical attention. She wasn’t sure she could murder a kid. Would the two deaths on Tiernan’s conscience put him in an early grave? Would they do the same to her, even if she wasn’t the prime mover?
If Tiernan didn’t die early, he wouldn’t be faithful. Well, who needed that sort of crowding? But she’d always wanted a kid of her own some day and no way he was up for that wrinkle in the bedsheets.
The nearer they approached Ainslee’s delivery date, the more Tiernan raged and begged, and, finally, after a full-service weekend of complete adoration, Divina caved.
In the kitchen Monday morning, with his coffee mug in hand and beard growth on his chin, he said, “Don’t worry. It’ll be fine. There’ll be no insurance paperwork for you to file and no data trail from the virtual warehouses to upset Mr. Nubbles. I’ll take care of supplies.”
She disapproved of mentioning Mr. Nubbles by name but let it pass. “Can you cheat the warehouse system?”
“Sure can. I’ve been updating inventory and making procedural changes. Bound to be a few bugs.”
“If you’re thinking about simultaneous deaths,” she said, stretching full-on into the beam of sunshine slashing through the window, “it could be done with one bullet.”
He leaned on the counter. “The kid could be saved. Even born posthumously.”
His blind hatred of that kid troubled her but it didn’t override his provocative lips or the recurring energy of the rest of him. “What do you suggest?” she asked. She sipped her coffee and gagged. God forbid she was pregnant.
He was too busy to notice, too intent on dissolving the sugar load in his coffee.
“Fatal car crash,” he said. “You know all the ropes, now.”
“Same risk of one of the two surviving.”
“Full service,” he said. “One of us would be on scene to make sure.”
“You could do that,” she said. “A crash is an accident, no one to blame.”
He said, “I can’t be in the crash with her. I have her insurance on my back. I’d be investigated.”
She poured her coffee into the sink. She’d broken through the glass ceiling and gained admission to the virtual warehouse of vehicular homicide, which included all kinds of road paraphernalia as well as trucks, cars, motorbikes, and the like, all prepped on the spot for ramming or self-destruction, depending on the client’s instructions. Tiernan had trained her in road strategies designed to maximize destructive impact—but she’d balked at taking on any jobs. It wasn’t about the speed; it was the likelihood of fire. Fire scared the bejesus out of her.
She asked, “How do you see this going down, then?”
He moved close and finger-traced the golden serpent, sensuous around her left arm. “You drive Ainslee to her prenatal check-up next time—because I’m out on a case? And you’re car-jacked.”
“As the driver, I’d be the one killed first.”
He leaned to dance words in her ear, and the scrape of his whiskers shot shivers through her navel and beyond. “I’d never put you in jeopardy, Div. I freaking worship you, the tattoos, that tongue stud you hide from Mr. Nubbles. No, listen. I jack the car, finish Ainslee and co, and, way out of surveillance range, set fire to the whole mess. You’d wait on the street to give your statement to the cops, and I’d grieve the tragic deaths after they caught up with me at home.”
“You’d need an alibi for the time of the murders.”
“I can fix an alibi, no problem.”
Tiernan’s plan didn’t sit right with Divina. What if he screwed it up or double-crossed her?
With his permission, she requisitioned supplies through his backdoor portal and ordered the weapon he wanted but specified two mags of bullets. Nothing wrong with his car choice either—a saloon-taxi with tinted windows and a rear-end electrical battery, but she loaded the trunk with several containers of gasoline. Fire was the best consumer of trace, so long as she was nowhere near it.
She studied the gray-area map, and, on the appointed day, pulled up at the curb outside his place. It was happening, and, monster as she was, she was primed.
But Ainslee was being hoisted into an ambulance. Had Tiernan tried to kill her in a fit of rage? Divina scrambled from the taxi and jogged to the ambulance.
Inside, over a mound of blanketed belly, a flaxen-haired woman with eyelashes white as daisy petals peered at Divina. “Hello, there! You must be the driver Tiernan sent.”
“Right,” Divina said. “What’s going on?”
Ainslee said, “My water broke, you know? and the contractions are coming fast, but I can’t get hold of Tiernan. Will you tell him where I going?” She grimaced and moaned through a prolonged contraction.
Gutted, Divina waited until Ainslee was comfortable then said, “Sure I will.”
Tiernan had left it too late. Well, she’d help if Tiernan handled the dirty work, but it was crazy he didn’t just take the high road with an amicable divorce. Why not?
Two reasons: child support and insurance. Was he all about the money?
As Divina approached the intersection where Tiernan waited to fake jump her, she’s steeled herself for the inevitable. She loaded one of the mags into the pistol and left it on the dash. She released the door locks and braked on cue when a garbage can lid clattered to the road. Tiernan bounced himself onto the passenger seat. All more or less according to plan.
He waved the pistol at her and yelled, “Get the hell out now.”
He was either acting the part or totally freaked. Divina said, “Wait. Let’s go on a bit.”
She speeded up, only to brake hard to avoid a fender-bender at the red light. Tiernan jerked forward and smashed into the dash. He’d lost the weapon and groped for it under his seat.
He put the gun barrel to her temple. For show. He whispered, “What’re you playing at Div? Leave it to me, and get out while we’re still in CCTV range.”
“I know a better place,” she said. It wouldn’t take him long to find out that Ainslee was missing, so she floored the accelerator. By the time she eased up, Tiernan had slid back the tinted divider to check out his wife.
He relaxed in his seat, looked totally zonked. “You did that for me, honey? Thanks. It means a lot.”
“No problem,” she said.
“You left her in my apartment?”
“No, that would’ve shone the interrogation lights right on you.”
“You’re the best,” he drawled. He could have been concussed.
Concussion was good. She eased his gun from her direction and bounced them over rubble and undergrowth until she crawled into a scrub-oak grove. It was a non-surveillance zone where nothing grew but trees and junkie veins swollen for a fix. It was where she’d witnessed her first deaths. How many now? Too many.
She didn’t cut the engine, and Tiernan scratched his chin with the weapon. Divina figured he’d be thinking right about now how he’d shucked his wife and kid already. And why leave a witness? The safety clicked a millisecond before the shot exploded by her ear.
The blank’s percussion deafened and rattled her, but it didn’t affect her feet. She accelerated. At the last second, she sheered left. The tree she hit cracked vertically, but Tiernan flew through the windshield. He lay face-down on the yellow bonnet under a mass of shed foliage and broken glass. His clothes were shredded. The engineering of murder vehicles was amazing—a flaw for every contingency.
Divina unfastened her seat belt and drew a couple of deep relaxing breaths. It was going to be awful—the Garden of Holy Hell—but she had to finish it and get clear.
She slid the gear into reverse and slammed the tree behind her. The explosion shook her into partial deafness, but flames shot over and across the car, releasing a smoky heat that scorched her lungs. Until a stray flame licked at her own sleeve she was paralyzed. But she knew her job and no way she was leaving even trace of trace. Especially not her own DNA.
She forced herself to slide from the seat and over the flame crawling up the paintwork. In the grip of a bravery she’d didn’t know she owned, she skedaddled under a canopy of burning leaves. Her nose filled with the stench of charred flesh and gasoline fumes.
She had to get out before someone reported the fire. Airy, flaming leaves singed her hair and clothes, and, as she swept them off, she cursed her stupidity in getting involved, in risking her life—her sanity—in fire. She’d killed before—of course she had. But Tiernan … They’d shared some heat, but she should have realized the good times were all done. She very badly wanted to throw up. She could not throw up and leave her DNA. She’d better not be pregnant.
Tears welled behind her eyes when she made it to her Harley Femme, a half-mile off, and her only safety net her entire life. She eased her sore shoulders into her leather bike jacket. Then she checked her face in the rear-view and scrubbed powder burst from her cheek with her sleeve. She’d need to mask the burn. With shaky fingers, she strapped on the head-shell. Mr. Nubbles wouldn’t approve—her bike gear was black with gold serpent designs.
She walked the bike to the path, straddled it, and kickstarted the engine. Her queasiness evaporated instantly, and she let out a bark of a laugh. She wasn’t pregnant.
Didn’t women in labor get queasy, and hadn’t Mr. Nubbles told her she had an empathetic spirit?
She’d have to shower and change, but why not drop by the hospital afterward? With Ainslee far from her family and, as from today, a widow, maybe she’d be glad of a godmother for the kid.