Detachment, by Robert Kibble
“Oh come on, it’s an obvious suicide.”
I didn’t agree. Two days ago the Chief was supporting my suspicion, saying ‘trust your instincts,’ but with no hard evidence his interest had faded quickly. It didn’t feel right to me, though.
I’d had three dead retired doctors and two dead retired teachers, all dying in the same way. Each one seemed genuine; each one seemingly unconnected. In each case friends reported they’d been losing their marbles, at least to some degree, but maybe they knew enough to take their own lives. In each case they’d taken two pills to do it.
It felt different for this guy, though. He’d lived on his own for years, and he barely knew anyone – at least that’s what the neighbours told me. They thought he must have moved away. He wasn’t found for three weeks. In the end he was reported by squatters – amazingly civically-responsible squatters, by their standards, who’d found him when they broke in and phoned us. If he hadn’t had a pretty amazing-looking house right on the corner of the Oxford Road I wonder if anyone would ever have found him. Presumably after some time the whole body just gets consumed somehow and any smell stops? I heard a radio programme about people who research it, but they didn’t tell me what actually happens, apart from the fact that it all starts in the ears, nose and throat. Well, they said orifices, strictly speaking, but I think that’s horror enough.
He – my obvious-suicide-according-to-the-Chief – was a refugee from World War Two, over here from Poland and had always hoped to return. At least that’s the story his friend told me. I found that friend – another Pole called Marcin – because he’d sent a Christmas card. Our suicide left it on the mantelpiece. We found him in April. The card had a scrawled phone number, so I’d rung it.
Marcin officially identified the body, which made our lives easier.
I walked round the dead man’s house looking, and wondering. It was a magnificent house, built on three stories with a basement below, and grand hallways. It would have been amazing in its time – some kind of townhouse for the lah-de-dah set, perhaps. Not much of a garden, but maybe that had been sold off. The houses behind looked new.
Anyway, something about it troubled me. I’ve got a habit of looking round for things which don’t fit. He had piles of newspapers spread around in what had probably been some kind of larder, but that was normal enough. Some of the papers were folded to the crossword page. And some, not the ones on top, but a few inches down, were filled in. A bit higher up, and occasional clues were filled in, but not many. A few of the top ones weren’t even turned to that page.
What hit me, though, was when I found an iPhone.
Not normal for that age-group. It had long since discharged, so I had to wait until I got back to the station to charge it up again and switch it on. Fortunately there was no screen lock. He’d made no more than half a dozen phone calls on it ever, unless he’d deleted them. I went through the numbers anyway. One was to Marcin, which hadn’t been answered. One was to the council, who didn’t have records detailed enough to help. All the others were to mobiles. I looked up the numbers, and those phones were anonymous. Bought for cash. Turned out this phone had been bought for cash too.
My boss said open-and-shut, and being a nightmare of a boss when he gets riled, that really meant that was it. I didn’t have any more time, so I left it at that. But on a whim, I kept the iPhone. Just slipped it away, since no one would notice – we lose things all the time round here. I was going to go through it more thoroughly later. Not the calls, though – there was nothing there. Something else. If you made that few calls, why did you have such an expensive phone? Why not a standard one, or one of those ones with the big buttons, specially designed for the elderly?
I went through the apps he had: FreeNagram, an anagram-helper; Gnudoku, a Sudoku thing; FastLaneBrainTrain, which I’d heard of on some documentary saying it was being pushed to people who were worried about getting dementia; and OSMand, a free GPS app. Why would he need that? Where was he going? He didn’t have a car, for heaven’s sake.
There were some other apps that I thought were standard, but something still felt wrong about the whole thing.
I told my wife I felt suspicious, and she gave me that look that she gives when she thinks I’m “thinking too much.” I told Dad about the apps too, and he recognised the name FastLaneBrainTrain, and said he had a copy as well.
“It measures your brain-age,” he told me over tea one day when he’d come over to see my kids and was making clear he was only tolerating me. “Lets you know how fit your brain is. I’ve got the mind of someone your age. You should try it.”
Yeah, I thought, so you can feel superior when mine comes out as older than yours and I feel even worse about dropping out of Uni. Some of us don’t think in maths and word puzzles.
Dad went off and I did let it lie, at least until the next cadaver I found with the same poisons, a few months later. They called them the “two pills”: amusingly for Matrix fans a red one and a blue one. Together they delivered a fast-acting barbiturate followed by a massive dose of sedative, so you fell asleep and your heart stopped. The Swiss had developed it, but some guys in Oregon had perfected the combination. It was what they gave to people who wanted to be able to end their own lives on their own terms. And there was absolutely nothing to make anyone suspicious about any of these cases.
Except I was suspicious.
These people had been alone, and they made that decision one day. Did they have a sudden reawakening when they realised what was happening? All of them? Or did someone slip by and help them out? Which was still a crime, even if I might grudgingly approve, given how much Dad always spoke of the fact that I’d have to “help him” if things ever got that way. And if the police don’t investigate and prosecute crimes… well, that’d be like the eighties all over again.
And besides, how would they know where to get them? OAPs weren’t usually big into the drug scene.
On the side I went to a doctor to ask about dementia, asking how quickly it becomes something the patient himself isn’t aware of. How quickly are you beyond “oh, I’m a bit forgetful,” and onto the “are you one of my children as well?” stage? Of course it varied so much that it was useless to ask.
But I did mention that inquiry to Dad, when again he came over on the pretext of catching up with his daughter-in-law, who’d been out on his last visit, although he spent no time talking to her at all. Mostly he spent the morning showering the kids with presents, including giving me a bag of a few things “for future birthdays – just in case.” Yes, I mentioned my query into dementia to him, and he gave me a look I hadn’t seen before. A look as if he had to stop and think, and was being guarded. A look I saw on suspects’ faces every day, but I’d never seen on his.
I didn’t say anything, and I’m poker-faced enough to think he wouldn’t have noticed. I spent a little while working over the conversation in my head – I even made a few notes in a notebook, although for obvious reasons not my official one, and I realised I’d mentioned the app again. The FastLaneBrainTrain one. What had I said? “I tell you, Dad – the week I’ve had I’d be well over your age on that brain train game by now.” That was all. He just clammed up.
After lunch he’d started playing with the kids again, and I’d gone to make tea. We have a loud kettle. A loud kettle can hide a multitude of sins, from tidying up spills on the floor to uncorking a bottle of whisky when the day has been stressful. I slipped out and grabbed his phone from his jacket. An iPhone – yes I know that doesn’t count as coincidence in this day-and-age. A few apps alongside FastLaneBrainTrain. Nothing which matched. I looked through his calls list, and all but one had contact names associated with them. I noted the number down, and put the phone away. I’m not proud, but I felt something was up, and I got back before the kettle boiled, so no one was any the wiser.
I abused the system the next day and checked the number I’d found on Dad’s phone. It had been bought for cash, as the ones on the other mobile had been, but this time there had been a top-up, with a name. I checked that name in our records.
I asked for the post-mortem, and when I received the envelope a few days later a part of me looked at it and knew what it contained, while the other was telling me not to open it at all. Two paths, in a wood. I took the one sadly inevitable…
I opened it.
Same two pills.
So did Dad know something about this?
A couple of days later I found some free time, and went round to his. For the first time in years, in fact. I didn’t normally visit, because it wasn’t me he wanted to see. He didn’t come to ours to see me – he wanted to see the generation that still had hope, the ones who hadn’t failed. “You’ve got a more child-friendly house, so it’s easier,” had been the excuse, but I understood. This time it was different. This time he was seeing me.
“We didn’t…?” he said, looking momentarily confused.
“No. Can I come in?”
He looked back into the house, and seemed as if he was about to say no, before relenting. He actually said “s’pose”. I almost burst out laughing. The surly teenager was still in there, being asked to let someone into his room. In an instant the parent-child relationship had switched.
His house was a mess. Nothing catastrophic, but just a little mess here, and a little mess there. Hairs building up in places there shouldn’t be hairs. Dust on things which had gone beyond “yeah, I know, dusting’s a pain,” and gone to “honestly, the treasure of the Sierra Madre might be under there.” And there he was, suddenly smaller. My father. The man who’d brought me into the world, and who’d been my inspiration and my world when I was small, and for the first time in my life I realised I was taller than he was. He sat down quickly and asked me what I wanted.
“You called someone. Someone you don’t know.”
“What? Have you been spying on me?” and then a moment later, “Did I tell you this?”
A glass shattered. A world. My father, so much more than I would ever be, and there was doubt in his eyes. I wished I hadn’t come. I wished I’d never seen this. The world that had shattered was mine.
“No. Yes. I mean, your mobile number came up in an investigation. Someone who died called you. I didn’t recognise the name.”
He looked relieved. Well, half-relieved. “You mean Billy?”
William, but yes. “Yes.”
“He’s gone, then. Peacefully, at least.”
He looked at me, and looked down.
“Peacefully?” I asked. “Did you have anything… I mean, were you…” and then I stopped. I was ashamed of even starting, and only because it was my father did I talk so stupidly without thinking. Of course he couldn’t. Could he? No. This was my father. My now-smiling father.
“No, no, no,” he said, seeming himself again. “Did you come here because you need to know for work, or because you want to?”
I thought for a while, but I knew the answer immediately – it just took a while to filter through to my conscious brain. “I want to.”
“Well, you’re my son, and I trust you,” he began, and in an instant my heart melted. It wasn’t what he said – it was the way he said it. He meant it, absolutely. No conditions, no consulting my opinion, just saying how things were. And from that point on, he proved himself right.
“Turns out,” he said, giving a half-laughing-cough, “that it was more like he had a stake in my death.” He looked straight at me, maybe wondering how I was going to take it. “He knew of a pill…”
“Two pills,” I interrupted. Stupidly, I knew, the moment I said it.
He smiled again. “It looks like two pills to you people. It’s one to us. And it’s got wifi.” He laughed. “A bionic killer tapeworm.”
I stared. “What?”
“That’s how Billy described it to me. It attaches to your gut and then connects to the brain games thing you found. What was its name again?” He thought for a moment, eyes suddenly wistful, before shaking his head and continuing. “If I fail to get below seventy for a week in a row…” He paused, but I was in no mood to interrupt now. “…it triggers something which releases all the non-organic stuff and begins dissolving. A few days later, after plenty of time for the electronic stuff to have been flushed away…”
“…you absorb the chemicals?”
“What I want.” He stared right into my eyes, and the man I’d idolised all these years was back. But that moment was fleeting. He withered again, even as I was looking at him.
“It’s not right.”
“Really?” He slumped down into his favourite chair.
For a while I didn’t think he was going to say any more, but he did, quieter than before, and now as if he was reading a script rather than coming up with it spontaneously, like he’d practiced this.
“We spoke about this time, and you promised to help.”
I started to interrupt, but he raised a finger. Just the index finger on his right hand, but it was enough. He wasn’t looking at me now; his head had slumped forward slightly. He looked so frail.
“You promised to help. Well, I know you can’t. And I think you wouldn’t. Don’t say it, because I don’t want to know I’m wrong now. I’m fading. I visit you when I’m on a good day, and I use the app to remind me to come. It’s set up to tell me when I’m having a good day.” He looked up, and a weak smile crossed his face.
I stared into his eyes, and went and got the phone. He sounded as if he was about to object, but his eyes drifted back to looking out of the window. I opened the app and scrolled down to the scores. It had a long-term average, and a graph, with a line across marking seventy. Mostly he’d been well below, but the last eight days were all above, with today’s being the closest. The ones before were well above. “You’ve already failed?”
“What?” He looked as if he was about to fall asleep.
“You’ve failed?” I ran round in front of him. “You’ve been over seventy for a week!”
He looked into my eyes, tears welling up in his. I’d never seen him cry. “I think so, yes.”
“It’s released? I can get help…”
He surfaced for a moment, reoccupying his eyes. “Cut me open? No. No, son. I made my choice, months ago, and it’s right. Look at me. You can remember this, but the kids? I want them to remember me as something else. As something I was. As what I,” he said, putting a weak hand to his chest, “always am in here…”
I looked at him, not knowing what to say. Some part of him had gone, to be sure, but he was my father. “I can come every day.”
He looked up at me again, and the smile was wider. Tears did flow down his face. “I won’t come to you again. But I’d like you to come here. At least find me quickly. And, son…”
“Give me a hug.”
I squatted down and held him gently, and I felt his head fall forward onto my shoulder. He felt so light in my arms. I pulled back after a while, and his eyes were shut. For a moment I panicked, and checked his pulse, but he was obviously still breathing.
“Good-bye, Dad,” I said as I left, just in case.
I took his spare key.
He struggled to recognise me the next day, and kept asking if I was going to get married, saying what a lucky girl she’d be, whoever she was.
The day after, he was dead. I found him, and I reported him. I hid the phone, of course.
My boss was suspicious at first, given the interest I’d shown, but he convinced himself there just had to be some website advertising something, and lost interest after a few days, after Dad was buried. My wife cried more than I did.
I guess I’d said my goodbye.
Robert Kibble has been writing for twenty years, off and on. When not writing, and not suffering the burden of a very much less creative day job, he is usually upset about the lack of a single Russian oligarch with a preference for recreating zeppelins over buying football teams, is accidentally collecting whisky, or ranting about the vagaries of modern life at PhilosophicalLeopard.com.
0 Click to show the author some love!
Tags: murder, Robert Kibble, suicide