My caretakers in The Freevolution Habitat played Clue at night. I — Umberto, born an ordinary donkey — recovered from my surgeries and grew to self-awareness hearing the antics of Miss Scarlett and Professor Plum, ropes and conservatories, secret passageways and, always, murder.
* * *
Sarelle — uplifted, sublime, blood bay horse and ex-love-of-my-life — came into my bar during the last set of the night. I lost all air. My mouth went dry, the reed stuck to my lip and Betsy, my clarinet, burbled inharmoniously for a moment or two.
I hadn’t seen her for more than a decade. After she left me, I moved here to Tijuana and bought the bar. At least I had music and, whether metaphor or cliché, border towns the world over are havens for our kind.
She sat at a front center table while I recovered and launched into Sidney Bechet’s blissful “Blue Horizon.” Her infinite eyes gleamed as she listened.
“I want babies,” Sarelle had told me during the messy break-up, noting some factoid she’d just learned about horses and donkeys being unable to breed. That, of course, was a manshit excuse because uplifted animals are usually sterile anyhow.
And then she went with Horace, an up-donk like me.
The three of us had come up together at the Hab and were friends in San Francisco when newly aware, when I — thrilled beyond all reason with the delicately capable fingers attached to new hands at the end of new arms — had learned to play.
I finished the set, but my pride wouldn’t let me go to her. I sat down at the end of the bar near Al: bartender, buddy, barrister, biggest fan. I downed three shots in short order.
“Ease up,” he said.
“I didn’t ask to be uplifted.”
His arm halted in mid-air. His scotch swayed on the rocks.
“No one asks to be born, you ass.”
Al is human. And a lawyer. I liked him anyway.
“You didn’t have to be born twice,” I said as the only comeback I could think of. “So shut the hell up.”
“When have I ever shut up? That’s Sarelle, huh?” He regarded her with undisguised appreciation.
“She’s a horse, Al.”
“Was. Was a horse. They did a nice job on her.”
“You make her sound like a damn refurbished car.”
Sarelle’s voice entered my body, not through my ears, but my sternum. It swirled around my heart for a few seconds and then squeezed.
I stood and turned, feeling the tequila.
“I need your help,” she said.
“Hmm. Should’ve stopped that sentence before the ‘r help.’”
“Be serious. I’m in danger.”
“And I’m drunk. You could have shown up earlier. Ten years ago would have been good.”
Her head reared back and my coldness melted at the sight of white in her eyes.
“Danger?” I asked, softening at the sight of her distress.
“He’s hurt me for years. I’m trying to get away.”
Putting my hand around her withers, I guided her to my office and poured her a brandy. We sat on the couch.
“Horace?” I asked.
She knocked back half her drink and nodded, eyes down.
Horace. Already, this didn’t add up. I’d run into him a month ago.
Sitting in the shade of a cottonwood in the square, I heard my name, but couldn’t see who was yelling it. My natural donkey eyes being none too keen, I’d gotten vision enhancements years ago. I adjusted the eyedial to zoom, resolved the blurriness, and saw Horace loping across the green — mostly avoiding the intervening toddlers and locked-in-place lovers.
A bay dun with a light cream pangare on his chest, I had to admit he was elegant for a donk — especially compared to my blotchy hide.
“What brings you here?” I asked.
He couldn’t stand still, like he was on something.
“‘The Scene’ is what we’re calling it. Surprised you didn’t have the idea first.”
I flicked lint off my pinstriped trousers. “Haven’t had an idea in twelve years. Tell me.” I retrieved Betsy’s case from the bench at the last second before he could sit on her.
“I’ve done pretty well financially, so I’m just trying to give back. To our community, you know. The Scene will be a show with all uplift acts.”
“You mean a freak show.”
“Nah, that’s not the spin. It’s a Variety Revue, like vaudeville. We make some money showing off our talents.”
He hadn’t “done pretty well financially” by sharing the wealth, but I wasn’t going to argue. “Knock yourself out,” I said.
“You have to be part of this. You’re famous here.”
I can’t deny it; that self-serving bit of flattery spread through me like warm syrup. But like anything sweet, it didn’t last.
I got up. “Break a leg.”
Horace put a hand on my arm.
“No, seriously,” I said, extracting myself from his grip. “Break a leg.”
illustration by Dorota Jonkajtys
* * *
Now Sarelle sat on my worn green velvet couch, tilting toward me a bit, but only because of the sprung coils under the cushion. Her long silken legs — red-brown with delicate black fetlock wreaths and still so shapely they took my breath away — stretched out in my direction.
“Horace has always been abusive,” she said. “I’m never good enough. He’s ruined my self-confidence. He controls my every move. Though ...” she paused and downed the dregs of her brandy, “he only hits me when he’s high ... under the influence.”
“Sarelle, donks — we aren’t violent. Sure, stubborn and crabby. Depressive, maybe. We lose our temper and lash out, but to be intentionally and repeatedly cruel? It’s not our way.”
“I knew you wouldn’t believe me. It’s why I never came here before.” She closed her eyes and pressed on them.
“I don’t know why you’ve come now. What am I supposed to do?”
She looked at me, her black eyes lifeless, dull. “I can’t ... say it.”
I regarded her for a long moment. My heart had finally stopped pattering. “How long have you been in Tijuana?”
I stood up and took her glass. “I can’t help you. At least Horace had the courtesy to seek me out. You ... you come asking for something you can’t even verbalize and expect me to jump when you say so?”
“I want you to kill him.”
“I won’t say it again.”
“You shouldn’t have said it once. Murder?” I whispered the word. “That’s crazy. It’s not us. It’s not in us.”
“But we’re monsters, right? Everyone says so.”
“Jesus. No.” I sat down. “We’re no more monsters than a ... a human woman with breast implants or an android with skin. We still have our own natures. We’re still vegetarians, aren’t we? We didn’t become human when we were uplifted. Murder?”
“I’m sorry I came.” She stood up and brushed down the front of her deep blue dress, smoothing the lightweight fabric.
“You still look amazing. Leave him.”
“It’s okay, Umber. I know what I have to do.”
From the back of the bar, I watched her go.
She stopped on the way out and spoke to Al for a few minutes. He must have told her what I would have, that she didn’t owe us anything, because she left with no money changing hands. His eyes followed her out.
She left me with nothing, once again.
* * *
After a few sleepless nights, I went to The Scene.
Horace shook my hand energetically. “I’m afraid to hope that you’ve come to join us.”
“Don’t be afraid.”
I signed a contract for a short run.
My motives weren’t complicated. I still cared about Sarelle and needed to find out what was going on.
But I never saw them together. Sarelle wasn’t around. And Horace, was ... well, Horace. More full of himself than he had been when I first knew him. Controlling, sure. But this was his show; he needed to boss everyone around.
Opening night, I sought him out. A massive gauze bandage shrouded his forearm.
“What the hell happened?”
“Accident. It’s fine.” But he looked miserable for a guy who was about to have a sold-out opening.
“Is Sarelle going to be here?”
Left him? Left Tijuana?
He shrugged. “Don’t know. She does what she wants.”
“That’s not what she told me.”
“She came to my place a few weeks ago. Jealous?”
I wanted to rile him, to see how quickly his temper flared. But instead, he said, “She’s always done what she wanted. No one controls Sarelle. There’s not much left between us.”
This sounded like a hard-won truth, but I tried again. “Were you trying to offload her onto me? Is that why you came to my town?”
His bottom jaw gaped, capped teeth looking unnaturally small. “Where do you get off? I came here to do exactly what I’m doing.”
“And it just happens to be the place I put down roots.”
“You —” he pointed at my chest and enunciated every word, “— and a lot of other uplifts. Get over yourself.” He walked off in a huff.
I had riled him, but not about Sarelle.
I took the stage feeling pretty good in spite of all this. I love performing. Hell, I bought my own bar so I could play any time I wanted. That night, having a large, new and appreciative audience was a treat.
And yet, my performance was off. My fingers worked fine; I didn’t screw anything up, but something didn’t feel right.
They loved me anyway. I played three encores.
Before the first one, Horace was there in the wings, excited, pleased — despite our earlier spat — urging me to go back on. I played two more tunes and left the stage. Horace wasn’t there. The audience clapped and stamped so long that I went back for one more.
Then at some point, while I watched the final act from stage left and, afterward, when we all took our bows and curtain calls, Horace was discovered, dead, lying in a pool of blood behind the theater.
In the alley, with a blunt instrument …
* * *
They took me into custody before the last customers had left the theater. But being falsely arrested for a friend’s death hardly touched me in comparison with the crystal clarity with which I finally saw Sarelle’s vicious, self-serving and murderous nature.
Al came immediately.
“You don’t seem that upset,” he said.
“I know I didn’t kill Horace.” I shrugged looking at the cage I was in. “This I can leave when it’s all sorted out. In the meantime, my self-inflicted prison bars have vanished. I feel freer than I have for years. Hey, ask them if I can have Betsy in here, will ya?”
“Umber, your clarinet is being held as the murder weapon.”
In the alley, with a clarinet …
* * *
So neatly framed was I that I should have been hanging over the mantel. According to the police, the clarinet they’d taken from my hands had Horace’s dried blood on the rim of the bell.
My conviction seemed almost certain to everyone but me. Al was taking no bets. While I knew where I’d been at the time Horace had been bashed, no one else seemed to have noticed me backstage. I could have, they said, left after my last number, killed Horace and been back in time for my curtain calls.
But I knew how to beat this. Maybe it wouldn’t have had to come to trial at all, but I wanted it to. And there you have it: I’m a performer at my core. I wanted to face Sarelle this one last time and I wanted an audience.
“He could never get used to the idea that I wanted someone other than him,” she testified, in a whispery voice.
My passion for her had turned into a cold hate.
“You were legally married to Horace, the deceased?” Al asked on cross-examination.
“You stand to gain a significant inheritance and proceeds from an insurance policy?”
She glared, her nostrils flaring.
“Please answer the question, Ms. Sarelle,” said the judge.
Al established that she and I were once in a close relationship and then asked, “Are you familiar with the instrument Mr. Umberto plays?”
“Of course. A clarinet.”
“How does Umberto feel about his instrument?”
She glanced at the jury. “It’s his prized possession.”
“Does he have a name for it?”
She shifted and reared her head so that her hair bounced fetchingly. She looked at the prosecutor and said, “Betsy.”
“Is there any significance to the name?”
I couldn’t have enjoyed the show more.
“I, uh … I —”
“Isn’t it a fact that Betsy was your name prior to your uplift? And that Mr. Umberto is one of the few who knows this fact?”
She stared at him, fuming, humiliated, as I knew she would be, to have her former life as an ordinary horse with a common name referenced in a publicized trial.
“You are under oath, Ms. Sarelle.”
I laughed out loud. Jury members gasped, giggled, and looked at the witness suspiciously for the first time. The prosecutor objected, though to what, I don’t know. The judge almost broke his gavel. All this, while Al leaned back against the defendant’s table, his arms folded across his chest.
The judge told Sarelle to answer the question. She flat out refused, was held in contempt, and taken away by the bailiff.
The prosecution rested on this highly rocky point and, in due time, Al called me to the stand.
“Mr. Umberto, is there any circumstance in which you would use Betsy as a weapon?”
“None. Even in self-defense, my reaction would be to set her down carefully and use my fists. Hit something with her? Impossible. I would protect her with my life.”
“But the prosecutor would have the jury believe that the instrument you played that night, the instrument that was on your person when you were arrested, the instrument otherwise known as Exhibit A, the alleged murder weapon, is Betsy.”
“It isn’t. I don’t know what happened to Betsy. I don’t have her anymore.”
“Unbeknownst to me at the time, I wasn’t playing Betsy the night Horace was murdered.”
“Why were you playing an instrument other than your own?”
“As I said, I was unaware. Someone switched her for a reasonably fine instrument that had been previously tainted with poor old Horace’s blood. Sarelle, I’d say.”
The prosecutor popped up. “Move to strike! Opinion.”
“Sustained. Jury will disregard. Tread carefully, Defense.”
“Your honour,” said Al, “I would like to submit into evidence a receipt.”
The judge allowed the document.
“What is this, Mr. Umberto?” Al asked.
“The order for an engraving job I had done a few years ago. It reads, ‘Engrave word — Betsy — on inside of clarinet bell.’”
The judge requested to see Exhibit A.
“Let the record show,” the judge said, “that this clarinet has no such engraving.”
“Where is Betsy, Mr. Umberto?”
“I have no idea. Ask Sarelle.”
* * *
Al should have bet on himself after all.
Even though the bogus clarinet I played that night had Horace’s blood on it, the coroner’s testimony about a recent deep knife wound on Horace’s forearm introduced enough doubt in the jury’s minds about where that blood might have come from, that I was acquitted.
Sarelle was never prosecuted. She had a convenient alibi locating her in San Diego that night.
The trial gained Al some notoriety though and he set up a full-time practice on the US side of the border.
I missed him at first. I thought about him a lot. Eventually, I went to see him.
“Fancy office,” I said. “Business must be good.”
“I have you to thank for that.”
“You’re welcome. But we both know it wasn’t my doing. I’ve come here today to make an accusation and here it is: Horace was killed in the alley, with who knows what, by Attorney Al.”
He regarded me for a long time, dark eyes steady. Then he said, “Don’t do this, bud. It’s not a game.”
“Was she worth it?”
Al lifted his hands palms up, indicated his wood-panelled office and said, “My — uh — interactions with her were extremely beneficial, yes. More to me than her. I’d think you’d be happy to find out that Sarelle doesn’t win every game she plays.”
“I thought you said this wasn’t a game.”
* * *
I wonder about the caretakers in the habitat. Why’d they play that particular game? Maybe they were just simple men and women wiling away the hours, but I’m suspicious of humans and their motives. Maybe they really were trying to make us like them — in every way.
In that respect, it’s good to know Sarelle wasn’t capable of the physical act of murder — that she had to get a human to do her dirty work.
But, it’s not exactly something to be proud of, is it?
For the record, I never got Betsy back. Either one of them.
Nancy S.M. Waldman writes speculative fiction from a 115 year old house in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is an alumna of Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop, a member of Codex writers’ forum, and a co-founder of Third Person Press which nurtures and publishes regional writers of speculative fiction.