And Then There Were (N-One), Part 2
by Sarah Pinsker
Not me, my logic brain understood, even though some tiny part of me screamed something was wrong. I’d made it through the entire afternoon talking with people who were more like me than an identical twin would be, but the body was somehow more real. The others down at dinner all had stories to remind me I was still myself, that I could still be differentiated. Absent stories and quirks, absent a person talking at me to prove we were not the same, the vacuum came rushing in. Who was she? In what ways was she me, in what ways was she not? Who would mourn her? I tried to imagine the shape of my own absence from my own world. It was an impossible exercise.
I struggled to regain control over myself. “You know I’m an insurance investigator, right? Dead bodies aren’t my area of expertise.”
“You’re the closest thing we’ve got. None of us are medical doctors, and it’s too late for one anyhow, and I figured you investigate things. I couldn’t find any of the organizers, so I thought I’d look for you.” She must have had a good memory for details, if she managed to find me in that dining hall based on one short conversation. Maybe that was a thing we all had in common.
Anyway, she was right: I did like a good puzzle. Not that I had any idea if this even was one yet. “Are there lights in here?”
She disappeared from my side, and the house lights came up a moment later. The room looked much smaller without the depth of shadow.
The body wasn’t me, I told myself. I concentrated on the differences rather than the eerie familiarity. Her cheeks were hollower than mine. She had more freckles, close-cropped hair. My empty stomach lurched.
She was starting to cool to the touch. I felt for a pulse, though I didn’t expect to find one. Her eyes were open, her pupils tiny in the blue. For some reason it brought the 90s John Lennon song “Change Your Tune” into my head, lyrics twisted. You’ll change your eyes, dear.
I shook the song away. Focus. She slumped against the stage, half-sitting, head leaning back against the stage. She wore a silk dress with a hibiscus flower print, louder than anything I’d wear, but not in a bad way.
“What’s your story?” I asked her under my breath.
I crouched to examine her hands and arms, trying not to move her too much. The nails had been bitten painfully short, but there was nothing under them that implied a fight. Some bruises and track marks on the insides of her arms, not all of them scabbed over, but nothing to suggest she’d tried to protect herself from the fall. I didn’t see any blood anywhere, but I didn’t want to move her until police or a coroner came.
Hotel Sarah stared at the body, absently chewing on her thumb.
“Why me?” I asked.
Not the question she’d expected, or else she’d tuned me out. “Pardon?”
“I know you said I was the closest thing to a detective, but why do you need someone to investigate? Aren’t the police on their way?”
She shook her head. “Gale force winds on the Sound tonight. They can’t make it out here by boat or helicopter.”
“What about a medical team? Surely there’s a medic here.”
“We paid a paramedic team to come out to the island this weekend, but they turned around because of the weather, too. My staff have basic CPR and first aid, but, well…”
I finished her sentence. “—but she’s obviously already dead.”
“Yeah. I thought maybe you’d be the next best thing to police, until they can get here. If she had a heart attack or stroke or just fell off the stage, it’s sad but nothing to worry about. If it was foul play”—the phrase sounded funny, like something on television—“we’re stuck with a murderer all weekend. If the police don’t get here in time, we can’t keep people from the portals. They’re timed precisely.”
“How about security? Surely you have security staff.”
She dismissed them with a wave. “They’ve never had to handle anything worse than kids setting off the fire alarms.”
“And I know I said this already, but you understand I’m in insurance? I investigate fraud. People lying about whiplash, that kind of thing. Not even the glamorous cheating-spouse stuff.”
She shrugged. I decided not to give her any harder time about it. She’d made a decision, never my strong point. She was probably already questioning herself, wondering what other option she hadn’t considered.
I was what they had. Right. So until police got here, I played coroner, law, and order. Not a role I was comfortable with at all, made weirder by the circumstance. Victim: Sarah. Investigator: Sarah. Suspects: All variations on the theme, other than the hotel staff. Hard to imagine one of us murdering; I knew I didn’t have it in me to kill someone. Also hard to imagine the hotel staff bothering; most murders involved somebody the victim knew.
I summoned up my inner TV detective. “Just to rule this out, nobody on your staff has any beef with you that you’re aware of? Nobody would be driven to kill by an entire hotel full of your dopplegangers?”
“I think we’re all weirded out by that, myself included. But I don’t think any of them hate me and I don’t think I work with any killers, though I guess that’s what everybody says. ‘He was such a nice man. He kept to himself.’” She touched her nametag. “Anyway, if they hated me, I’d think they go after me, not one of you. I’m easy to spot.”
“True enough. I’ll put them aside for now.” Though that meant focusing on the Sarahs again.
“Were you the one who found the body?”
“No. The DJ did. She called me.” She held up her walkie-talkie.
“The DJ is one of us, right? Not your staff?”
“All the performers this weekend are attendees.”
“And where is the DJ now?”
“She went back to her room. She was a little freaked out.” Understandable, if her reaction to seeing her own dead twin was anything like mine.
“Has anyone else been up here?”
“The Sarah running sound and lights came up to check the system earlier for the host’s speech.”
“The host. Have you told her yet?”
Hotel Sarah chewed at her thumb again. “That’s the thing. Like I said, I haven’t been able to reach her. The organizers are all on walkie-talkies since your phones don’t work here, but she’s not answering hers. Nobody on the committee is answering, actually. That’s why I took matters into my own hands. Last I saw her, she was down in their Operations room, but she’d been up here earlier, so she could have come back for something.”
I looked down at the body. Tried to remember the woman who had breezed through the lobby earlier. “Are you saying you think this might be the organizer?”
She didn’t say anything, so I continued. “Do you remember anything specific about her? Anything to differentiate her?”
Her look suggested the question was a pointless one. “She was a little thinner than most. I think she runs marathons. Most of the committee do.”
The body was freckled and thin. She could have been a runner. A runner with a possible drug problem seemed a little counterproductive, but maybe she had pain issues or something.
“How about her clothing? Do you remember what she was wearing?” The woman I’d seen earlier had been in a blouse and jeans, not a dress, but she’d had time to change her clothes.
She shook her head. “I have a pretty good memory for detail, but everyone’s blending together…”
“You don’t have a registration list, do you? That might be useful. We need to try to identify the body before anything else.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think to bring one up here. That couldn’t be her, right? Should I try to find her again? She’s going to need to notify the next of kin, and create a procedure to bring a body cross-world. Nobody’s ever died in the wrong world before.”
Infinite permutations. Surely someone must have. Except that for all the individual crossworld expeditions, according to the program this was the first gathering of its kind. Our host, one of us, the Sarah who had created the crossworld portal. It made me feel like I had wasted my life, in comparison. What would I have had to do differently to become a scientist? Her branch of science didn’t even exist as a field in my world. And now she was possibly lying dead in front of me.
Focus. If I hadn’t been carrying a backpack, I’d have put my ID and my keycard into my front right pocket. Her silk dress had a shallow pocket at the hip. When I slid my hand into it, I came up with a driver’s license. Her ID gave her name as Sarah Pinsker, which wasn’t much help. An address in Baltimore; the host worked at Johns Hopkins.
I held up the license. “Do you know how many here this weekend live in Baltimore?”
“Forty or fifty? There would be more if so many hadn’t been lost, from what I understand.”
“A bunch of Seattles were lost in tsunamis or earthquakes. Some of us moved from Baltimore to Seattle or Seattle to Baltimore…”
I followed her train of thought, pictured a giant wave swallowing my house. Shuddered, brought myself back to the situation at hand.
“So this might still be our host. One in forty or fifty in that city, but maybe we can narrow it down when names and addresses come into it. It probably isn’t the sound person, since she’s dressed up a bit. Isn’t the DJ, since the DJ found her. The host wasn’t working alone this weekend, was she? The registration desk, entertainment, programming… She had a committee, you said?”
“Yeah. Four others pretty similar to her. They’d all been on the verge of making the same discovery, so they were the first ones she reached out to.”
Next question, if I was acting sheriff. “I don’t suppose this bar has a walk-in fridge or freezer?”
“Why? Oh god. Shit. Yeah, there’s a walk-in fridge.”
“You take the legs and I’ll get the arms?”
As I positioned myself, the body’s head tipped forward, and I saw what I would have looked for earlier, if I were a real detective: a sickening, deadly deep indentation at the back of the skull. A cave-in. The hair was matted and sticky-looking, blood and—I didn’t want to look closer.
“I think I found the cause of death,” I said. “And I think we can rule out natural causes. Fuck.”
I didn’t want to touch the head any more than I wanted to look, but we still had to move the body. I grabbed a towel from the bar and wrapped her like she’d just stepped out of the shower. It still lolled against me as I lifted, and I fought the urge to be sick. She wasn’t heavy, wasn’t yet stiff. Rigor mortis started two hours after death. An odor came off her; a body doing body things, I told myself.
We put her in the walk-in in a recreation of the position she’d been sitting in. I inspected her exposed parts. No blood other than the back of her head. No bullet holes. Some bruises, as I’d noted earlier, but none that looked like they came from a fight or a fall. I wasn’t comfortable looking any further than that. After, I waited while Hotel Sarah rummaged in a drawer for notepad and tape and made a thick-markered “Do Not Open” sign for the fridge door.
“So do you think she just fell and hit her head?” she asked. “Or do you think she was murdered?”
There was a hopeful note in her voice on the first option, but below that, I could tell she didn’t believe it any more than I did. “You do, or else you want me to reassure you that the track marks suggest she overdosed and stumbled off the stage. Otherwise you wouldn’t have asked me up here. You would have dealt with it quietly, to keep from scaring the rest of the guests or harming the convention. You still want to deal with it quietly.”
She shifted from foot to foot. I recognized her restlessness. She felt helpless. Wanted something concrete to do, a decision made for her, a plan.
“Okay, here’s what I need from you,” I said, taking pity. I didn’t know my next step, but I could give her a task. “Go back down to registration, make me a copy of whatever you’ve got down there. Um, and what time was that dance supposed to start? They can decide if they want to have it in some other space, but they probably shouldn’t have it in here, in case there’s still evidence to be found. And, you know, out of respect. I’m going to look around right now, but I’d think the police would still want this left untouched.”
“I think they’ll cancel the dance. The DJ didn’t look fit to play.”
“I’m going to need to talk to her, too. But maybe downstairs, so she doesn’t have to come back in here? And the sound person.”
She nodded and left.
There really wasn’t anything else to do without the registration list. And it wouldn’t do any good to interview people without the right questions. Hard to ask who else was up here, when everyone looked the same. Hard to ask “Where were you at x o’clock?” if you didn’t solve for x. I could at least guess at that.
Or start with the crime scene; I walked back over. The stage was about chest high. I’d only had eyes for her before, but looking now, there was a blood smear on the stage’s lip just above where the body had been. The spot where she’d hit her head? No, the lip wasn’t the right shape to have caused the damage, I didn’t think. I pictured myself tripping or slipping off the edge of the stage, but I couldn’t imagine a way I would have fallen that would have had that result. No scuff marks, no chips in the wood, no bone fragments or hair. Just the one small smear and a deeper bloodstain where her head had been resting when we got to her. The wound itself hadn’t bled a lot. Maybe a forensic expert could see more.
A coroner would be useful, too. They’d be able to say if she’d fought someone, though I didn’t think so. She hadn’t looked scared or angry or horrified or even distressed. Dead. An absence of her, an absence of me.
The stage had two narrow curtained wings, and stairs on both sides. I walked to the front of the stage, to the spot where she must have slipped off or fallen after being hit. I tried to imagine falling from here. If someone had hit me from behind, I’d have put my hands out, fallen forward, unless they had dropped me in my tracks. There was no scenario I could think of that would result in stepping straight off to hit the back of my head on the stage. Maybe if I was looking behind me as I walked, and missed the edge? Even then, I’d expect more of a twist, a person trying to catch herself as she went down.
Something caught my eye a few feet from the stage, under the pedestal foot of the first table. I hopped down carefully. A keycard, still in its envelope. Room 517. The dead Sarah’s pockets were shallow enough that it could have fallen from her pocket, though the trajectory didn’t seem quite right. I dropped it into my bag and looked around to see if the floor held any other secrets, but didn’t see anything. Back to the stage.
The far wing was packed with music equipment and PA speakers. I hefted one of the mic stands. It had a pedestal base, heavy enough to hit someone with. There were six of them in a row, and any of them could be a murder weapon, though I didn’t see blood, and they were rounded where the wound had looked angular.
The wing closer to the DJ table was empty except the top of a travel case. It was black and silver, all the edges and corners reinforced with metal. I hefted it: heavy, and this was the unpacked half. The underside was foam, cut to fit the turntables. It had a small dent in one corner, and I flipped it to look at it closely. The shape was right, but it would be an awkward thing to wield. Still, I mentally added it to the list.
I felt around the edges and found a luggage tag. Sarah Pinsker. The unmoored feeling caught me again; it was getting more familiar. Seattle address, in Rainier Beach, if I was right about the zip code. One of the cheaper neighborhoods to rent in the city, at least in my world.
The DJ equipment was set up on a table in front of the alcove. Under the table, two full record crates. I thumbed through them, amused I’d guessed the genres correctly. On the table, two fancy looking vinyl turntables with a mixing console in between, all cushioned in the other half of the travel case. I knew nothing about DJ gear, didn’t know if this was expensive or cheap equipment. There were two records already on the turntables, the Sharon Jones/David Bowie cover of Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” I’d have had fun dancing to those. Too bad the dance wouldn’t happen now.
There was an “SP” in silver marker at each record’s center, and on each piece of equipment. I pictured tomorrow’s lineup of musicians, all with the SPs that normally differentiated their gear from others’.
I ran my finger over a spot where the foam had separated from the protective casing. Some glue would stick it back, an easy repair, except as I touched it I realized something had been pushed down in between. I crooked a finger into the gap and felt around until I snagged a tiny envelope. Tapped it out into my palm: eight tiny pills. I didn’t recognize them, but I didn’t have any knowledge of narcotics. They could be ibuprofen, for all I knew, though most people didn’t go around slipping envelopes of ibuprofen into secret cubbies. In my world, anyway.
“Hello?” someone called from the back of the room.
I tucked the pills back in the envelope and the envelope into my pocket alongside the keycard. “Over here.”
A Sarah made her way over to me. She wore cargo shorts, black combat boots, and a T-shirt for a band I didn’t recognize. She walked with a swagger. Interesting to consider how we might have developed different walks.
“They asked me to bring up a copy of the registration list.” She held a red three-ring binder out to me.
I hopped off the stage to take it from her. “Thanks. Are you the sound tech?”
“Yeah. I’d introduce myself, but it hardly seems worth it.”
I smiled. “Hardly. But I wouldn’t mind if you pointed out which name is yours, so I can start taking notes.”
She took the book back from me and flipped to the last page in one sure movement. “Mine is easy, since I took my wife’s last name. Yarrow. Last person in the whole book.”
I grabbed my pen off the table where’d I left it and circled her occupation to remind myself who she was. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“What time did you come up here?”
“Three-thirty. There wasn’t a whole lot to set up, but it always takes a little longer when you’re not working with your own gear. I soundchecked the DJ, then the keynote speaker. Figured out how to run her slideshow. After that I took some time to get situated with the light board. I’m not really a lighting person, but it’s pretty well labeled. I think I was out of here by four-thirty.”
“Were they both still up here when you left?”
“No. The DJ left after we tested her gear through the PA. She’d managed to haul her big case and one crate of records up here in one go, but she said she had to get a second crate from her room on the other side of the hotel.”
“And she didn’t come back?”
“I figured she got to talking to someone, or took a nap or something. She didn’t come back while I was here.”
“And the host stayed? The, ah, keynote speaker?”
“She said she wanted to go over her speech while nobody was in the room.”
“Did anybody else come up?”
“Not that I saw.”
I paused to consider what else I needed to ask. “Would you recognize the keynote?” She cocked her head, and I amended my question. “You don’t have to be definitive. But if you know it’s NOT her, that would be helpful.”
I led her to the fridge. “I should have asked: are you okay looking at her? I can warn you it’s a little freaky looking at a dead person who looks like you.”
“This whole thing is freaky. I’ll be okay.”
We approached within a couple feet of the body. The vertiginous feeling hit me again.
“It could be her?” she said, half statement and half question. “But, uh, she was wearing something else. She had on jeans, not a dress. Maybe she left and changed into what she was going to wear tonight and came back?”
That made sense. Or the manager’s fear that this might be the host was unfounded.
“That definitely helps,” I said. “You can go if you need to.”
She nodded. “They’re going to have to find someplace else for tonight’s programming, so I should probably find out where they want me. But, hey, it’s good to have something to do, right?”
I hadn’t considered it until then, but it was true. As disturbing as the idea of a dead me was, something about the whole weird weekend became more concrete now that I had a purpose. No wonder so many had signed up to run sound and registration and play music and lead discussions. The other volunteers must have been self-aware enough to recognize it before they arrived.
I sat down on the stage’s edge with the list. Flipped to the “Sarah Pinsker” section, the big section, and put stars next to the ones who lived in Baltimore. The host and eleven others, since several Baltimore Sarahs had taken other surnames. Five of the remaining Sarahs were Quantologists. They all had a big C after their name. Committee, I guessed. All five lived at the same address, the address on the license in the deceased’s pocket. The lone difference between them on paper was a designation in the last column. R0D0, R1D0, R0D1, R1D1, R0D1A. No clue what that meant, but the program had listed a parenthetical R0D0 after the host’s name, so I circled that one.
I paged through the book for a while, making notes beside the entries for the DJ, the hotel clerk, the sound tech, and a few others I’d met who stood out from the pack. It would have been really interesting reading material any other day; now it was a headache.
I still hadn’t finished my circuit of the room. I searched the bar for something with the right shape and heft to be the murder weapon. A couple of the bottles might have fit the bill, but I would have thought they’d smash on impact.
My desire for diligence didn’t extend to alone-time with the body, so I decided against searching the fridge. I wandered across the floor. The back of a chair or barstool? Or the leg? Possible, and a pain to check them all.
On the far side of the room, four folding tables covered with velveteen tablecloths. A printed sign hung on the wall behind them: Sarah Pinsker Hall of Fame.
Each table held a series of objects. A few had explanatory notecards in front of them, but most spoke for themselves. I remembered the questionnaire: “Do you have any special awards or achievements you’d like to show off? Bring them for our brag table!” I’d have thought they’d have better security, but then again, up until now I would have thought I could trust my other selves.
If the list of occupations had made me feel like an underachiever, this display reinforced it. A Grammy for Best Folk Album 2013, a framed photo of a Sarah in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle, a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, a stack of novels, a Nebula Award for science fiction writing, an issue of Quantology Today containing an article with a seventy word title that I guessed amounted to “Other Realities! I Found Them!” A few awards I didn’t recognize, though I wasn’t sure if that was because they didn’t exist in my reality or I just hadn’t heard of them.
Two of the awards looked like they had the shape to be the murder weapon, and one of them looked like it had the weight as well: the Nebula, a three-dimensional rectangular block of Lucite, shot through with stars and planets. What did you call a three-dimensional rectangle, anyway? I didn’t want to pick it up without gloves, but I used the back of my hand to push it gently backward. It was heavy enough, for sure.
As I touched the award, I felt a strange certainty this was it. That if I were to murder someone, which I absolutely wouldn’t do, this would be the weapon of choice. Not the mic stands, not the chairs, not the turntable case: this glittering block that would travel back to another reality at the end of the weekend with its owner none the wiser. I shuddered and shook the thought off.
Stooping to examine it closer, I didn’t see any sign of blood or hair. In fact, there wasn’t a single fingerprint on it, which was odd enough in itself. The other statuettes had fingerprints, but this one looked like it had been polished clean.
If this was the murder weapon, what did that say about the murder? Was it an act of passion, carried out with an item at hand? Was there any significance to the choice? If it was premeditated, that would narrow the list of suspects to the people who knew it would be up here: the host committee and the writer who had brought it. The list of people who had seen it here was probably more or less the list I’d already made of people who had been up to the room. Not much help.
Nobody else came upstairs, and after a while I got sick of waiting. I headed back down to the lobby. Passed the arcade, now empty, and the convenience store, now closed. The registration table, cluttered with nametags and markers, otherwise abandoned. A few people sat in the lobby, but the mood was markedly different than it had been before dinner. I gathered word had spread.
A new clerk was working the front desk, an acned non-Sarah in his late teens or early twenties. I held up my registration binder like an overlarge badge, trying to look harried and committee-bound. “I don’t suppose if I gave you a name and ID code, you’d tell me what room someone is staying in? Official business?”
He nodded. I flipped to the DJ’s name and pointed. After a moment’s typing, he looked back up at me. “107. That’s in the annex. Do you know where that is?”
My room was in the annex, but if the committee members were all staying in the tower, I didn’t want to break the illusion. I let him point me in the direction of my room. Her door was a few down from my own.
I knocked a few times before she heard me. When the door swung open, I recognized the person on the other side. “That makes sense! I didn’t realize you were the DJ.”
She smiled blankly. I pointed at her T-shirt. “We met outside earlier? When you were smoking? No Good Deeds?”
“Oh, yeah.” She replaced the empty smile with a warmer one. “It’s hard to keep everyone straight. Can I help you?”
“I’m, uh, investigating the death of the Sarah you found. I’m a detective. Do you mind if I come in and ask you a few questions?”
She opened the door wider, and I followed her into the room. The first bed’s bedspread lay in a heap on the floor. Her duffel’s contents were scattered across the second bed, in some sort of half-organization. A pile of greyed-out underwear, a few T-shirts, neatly folded, a pile of tampons, pack of cigarettes.
“Sorry,” she said. “I always spread out in hotels. You can have the chair.” She flopped down on the first bed. “Did you say you were investigating her death? She looked like she fell off the stage to me. Not that it wasn’t freaky to see her, you know?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “But the hotel manager asked me to look around a little. Because of the circumstances.”
“Are you alright with me asking you some questions?”
“Go ahead. It’s all a little upsetting, though. I’m not sure I’m thinking straight.”
That might be chemical, if the pills I’d found were hers. “Can you walk me through the afternoon?”
“I loaded my stuff into the room around four. Set up, soundchecked. Came back down here to get my second crate of records. When I went back, that’s when I saw her.”
“Do you know how long you were gone?”
She shrugged. I tried to remember when I’d run into her. She must have gone out for a smoke before going back with the crate.
“Where were you when you saw her? Where in the club, I mean?”
“As I was coming down the aisle toward the stage. She was just sitting there. I thought she had sat down, but then I realized the posture was funny.”
“And—sorry—was she definitely already dead by then?”
She bit her lower lip, bringing it to the white of her teeth. “Her eyes were open. I nudged her leg, but she didn’t respond, so I checked for a pulse.”
“Was she warm or cold to your touch?”
“Warm. I’ve never seen a dead person before, and she looked so…” She shuddered. I did too.
“And then you left her there? To go for help?”
“No! I made a call on her walkie-talkie. I figured the other people in charge would be on the other end, and maybe someone from the hotel.”
I closed my eyes to mentally revisit the scene. “There wasn’t a walkie-talkie there.”
Her eyes widened. “There was. I swear, I called on it. Ask the manager. It was next to the body. She’d been carrying it around before, complaining it dragged her jeans down.”
“Her jeans? Before she changed into the dress and came back?”
She gave me a quizzical look.
There wasn’t really much point to asking her anything else if she couldn’t even get basic details right. Her confusion felt genuine. “Thanks for letting me in. ‘Questions lead to questions lead to answers lead to answers,’ right?”
“I hope so,” she said absently, standing up and ushering me out. “I hope you get her home okay.”
She’d completely ignored the No Good Deeds lyric I’d used as a peace offering. Second and last album in my world, their one hit single. I wondered if it was the drugs or the shock, or she just wasn’t the fan I’d thought she was earlier.
About the Author
Sarah Pinsker is the author of the 2015 Nebula Award winning novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road.” Her fiction has been published in numerous magazines, anthologies, and year’s bests. Her collection “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into The Sea” is due out in 2019. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her wife and dog.
About the Narrator
Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and co-host of Escape Pod.
She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. In the past decade she has been: co-founder/co-editor of Pseudopod, founder of Mothership Zeta, editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).
She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.
Mur is the 2013 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.