The Widow and the Body Sitter

By Bill Bickel

From Universe 13, June 1983
Contributed anonymously

New technology creates not only human benefits but also chances for misuse and villainy�and our court system, firmly imbedded in tradition and precedent, may have trouble sorting out right from wrong. Suppose a sick man paid someone else to inhabit his body during his illness�and then the man died, in suspicious circumstances. What sort of court case might ensue?

Bill Bickel tells the story with logical and mordant intelligence. Bickel is a new writer, born in 1955 and living with his wife in New York His previous stories have appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.


After the first two weeks, Craig Brooken didn't mind admitting, the job had become close to unbearable.

Soul-skipping itself leaving the body to float in a pleasant, semiconscious limbo-was fun; but sitting somebody else's sick body while its owner was off feeling nothing was probably the worst sort of work a man could do.

It wasn't just that Jonas Pennington's body was racked with pain he'd expected that, for all that helped�but Sandra. Pennington's attitude made it all far worse.

Tapping Jonas's memories (and there sure as hell wasn't much else he could do with his time), he understood why the old man had remarried. Even at his age, Sandra still made him feel virile.

Hell, he thought, painfully turning Jonas's head as Sandra left after her token daily visit, Fm lying here in a body with maybe one millionth of my own sexual Libido, and deathly ill at that, and I've still got to take another look. "Hey, cheesecake," he shouted after her. She ignored him. "Okay, Sandra. Mrs. Bennington, ma'am."

She turned around. "What is it now?"

"You know, I'm climbing the walls here. There's only so long I can lie here all day watching the crystal."

"You're supposed to be getting Jonas's body well. You've got to rest."

"Look, cheesecake, I�m not talking about pulling you into bed with me. Jonas's body is hurting me too much. But I sure wouldn't mind you being a bit friendlier."

"Mr. Brooken," Sandra said icily, "you are being very well paid for your services. My companionship is not part of the fee."

"No, but haven't you heard that emotional support can help a person recover faster? Maybe if you were a bit more civil, it might help your husband's body to�" Overexcited, he began coughing wildly, until Jonas's lungs felt clear. "Then again, maybe you don't want him to get better. You think I don't know about your prenuptial agreement? He can dump you anytime he wants, and you get luno. But if he kicks off . . " Sandra started for the door. "You know, cheesecake," he called after her, wheezing again, "I�m surprised you didn't offer me a small fortune just to let old Jonas die. Not that I�"

"�and from that point on, I saw only the nurses and doctors. She hasn't spoken to me since."

Nicholas Penard stopped drawing little designs on his note pad and looked across his desk at Sandra Bennington as her lawyer turned to her. "Is that the way you remember it also?"

"Yes, it is," she said, "except that a week later, he abandoned Jonas's body without�without�" She started to cry.

Good Lord, woman, Penard thought, there's no judge and jury to hear you, just a couple of lawyers and the poor slob you're suing. Please don't insult our collective intelligences by pretending you're brokenhearted that your husband is dead.

`Without pressing the button on the OBEr to call back Jonas's being?" Lionel Quincey prompted her.


"Hey," Craig shouted, "you're feeding her testimony."

Penard leaned to his side and spoke gently into Craig's ear. "This is a meeting, not a trial. And Quincey's her lawyer."

"But he still can't�"

"He can. Please shut up. Okay," he said to Quincey. "Your reason for coming here."

"Mr. Penard, you are no doubt aware of my record."

"Legendary, I know."

If Quincey detected sarcasm, he didn't show it. "I was referring, of course, to the two other cases I argued against Body Sitters, Incorporated, particularly the Wirtham case, where�"

"Oh, hell," Craig said, suddenly making the connection. "He's the guy who almost put Body Sitters out of business last year."

Penard flipped the pen onto the desk top in disgust. Will the man learn to shut up?

Quincey smiled. "I merely proved that a body sitter had used knowledge gained while sitting Mr. Wirtham�s body to engineer a massive stock fraud. I suppose we could have pressed to have Body Sitters put out of business at that point, since its bonding agency would still have made good on the settlement, but we chose not to."

"Quite kind of you." Better to give the goose a chance to lay you a few more golden eggs. And this time, you're choosing not to sue BSI at all, but rather my client alone. Might I ask you why?"

"These are Mrs. Bennington's wishes."

"And in return for what consideration from BSI?"

"In return," Quincey said, obviously feeling the need to conceal nothing, "for that corporation's supplying us with Mr. Brooken's employee records, and whatever technical information we need."

"Whereby cutting their own throats for the next time."

"Thereby allowing them to keep their throats until the next time."

"Okay," Craig said, "let�s cut the crap." He stood up and pointed to Sandra. "You want to sue me for ten million dollars. You know I can't even pay Penard's bill, so what do you expect to get out of this?"

Sit down, Craig. You know damned well what she expects to get out of this.

Quincey leaned back in his chair. "Mr. Brooken," he said in a relaxed tone of voice, "Mrs. Bennington knows you don't have ten million dollars. You never will, most likely. But the law allows us to attach up to fifty percent of your salary for life. You're twenty-seven years old, and can anticipate another fifty working years. It could add up."

"Good God," Craig said in a near-whisper, sitting back down.

"Of course," Quincey said, "there is an alternative�"

Penard stopped, took a cigar from his pocket, and bit off the end. "Come on, Dad, this isn't a courtroom. Don't pause for effect."

Penard smiled. "Sorry, Michael. Old habits, I guess." As he spoke, he pushed the tip of the cigar into the Laze-Lighter, and an inch and a half of it disintegrated. The room began to smell of burned tobacco. "Damn it all," he shouted, throwing the cigar to the floor. "I could have lost my finger in there."

"You know that can't happen," Michael said patiently.

"Who ever heard of lighting cigars with the same stuff you can use to level cities? Don't you have any good old-fashioned matches around here? Or maybe they were before your time: little pieces of cardboard with a bit of sulfur on the end? They weren't fancy, but they always worked."

Michael let the Sweepeasy out of its closet to pick up the cigar. "No, Dad, just the Laze. Just like we've had here since before you rejoined the firm. Now what did Quincey say?"

"He said they'll drop the suit if Craig agrees to plead guilty to manslaughter."


"That's what Craig said, only with considerably more color. But what Quincey pointed out did make sense. Craig had one week left before he'd be relieved. He knew that Bennington's body was very sick, and therefore would die within an hour if he abandoned it, yet he did so. He could have used the OBEr to call Bennington's consciousness back, but he didn't He could have asked BSI for early relief, but he didn't."

"But the body was about to die anyway, so he fast left it before it was too late for himself."

"Which can't really be proven either way, which is why they know they couldn't make a contested manslaughter charge stick. I've got to admit, though, it might be Craig's best bet. A civil judgment would stay with him for life. Manslaughter, and he'd be free in five years, tops."

"Dad," Michael said, "I hate to say this, but it doesn't seem to me like you believe in this case."

Penard shook his head. "Sonny, I don't even, believe in soul-skipping itself."

"You don't mean that."

"No, but to you, it's something taken for granted. I can understand that: it's the same way I grew up with space shuttles and personal computers, but your grandfather was always amazed by them. You see, when I was young, we'd heard about people who could lift themselves out of their bodies. We called them mystics if we believed them, and nut cases if we didn't. But at best, there were damned few of them."

Penard unwrapped another cigar. "Then about ten years ago, they invented the OBEr, and the damned machine let people pop right out of their bodies with a flip of a switch."

"Dad, I know all this."

"Do you remember the riots? No, I didn't think you did. You were too young to really understand. People were panicking, rioting in the streets, frightened that the OBEr would let somebody take over their bodies."

"That's nonsense."

Penard threw up his hands. "That's what I'm saying. You know it's nonsense. But back then, people were terrified. They didn't know your body couldn't be taken over unless you left it voluntarily. They didn't know that if you used an OBEr to leave your body, you could be brought back instantly just by having a button pushed. They were afraid of the whole concept."

"And you?"

"I don't like changes very much. You know that."

"Then Dad, look. I've been thinking about this. I know you took this case because Craig's grandfather was a friend of yours, but�I mean, if you really feel that way about soul-skipping�"

"Sonny, let me tell you a few things. First of all, I don't dislike the concept of soul-skipping nearly as much as I dislike Craig."

"That's another thing."

"I only mentioned that for perspective. Hear me out. I don't like soul-skipping, and I don't like the way Body Sitters has turned it into big business. I object to it morally, and it's on shaky enough legal ground to give lawyers like Quincey a lifetime of income. But," he said, anticipating an interruption, "any judge this case comes before will feel the same way, and so will the jury and any other lawyer over the age of thirty."

He bit off the tip of the cigar and spit it angrily to the floor, where it was picked up by the Sweepeasy. "Okay, second. Lionel Quincey himself, of whom it is said he could convince a jury the sun will rise the next morning in the west and then it would. Craig is not likely to find a lawyer either confident enough or fool enough to go up against him in any case likely to get any press." He smiled. "Fortunately, I'm both."

"Are you sure?"

"What's that?"

"Dad," Michael said slowly, "you've been semi retired for some time now. Do you think�"

"I'm too old?"

"No, no, it's just that . . . you said it yourself. This is something new, and you don't adapt that well."

"Nukedumps!" Penard said, deliberately using the most current epithet he could call to mind. "Do you think you, with your vast corporate law training, could defend him any better? Sonny, let me tell you something: I'm a good lawyer, and Tm neither too old nor too entrenched in the twentieth century to get Craig Brooken off. But it's your law firm now, so if you don't believe me, if you don't think I've got it anymore, all you have to do is ask me to resign from the case and I'll do it." He poked his cigar ever-so-carefully into the Laze, and it lit perfectly. He smiled as he took his first puff. It appealed to his sense of dramatic symbolism.

"Okay, Dad, go ahead. The firm's behind you all the way."

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, her husband's death was the best thing that ever happened to Sandra Bennington, both financially and emotionally. Furthermore, she is suing my client not because she needs the additional ten million dollars over the fortune she's just inherited, but because my client was a royal pain in�

Forget it. The truth may set ye free, but not as an opening statement. A shame, though. The woman's trying to ruin Craig's life out of sheer spite, and with no clear precedents, this could all boil doom to which of us lawyers comes up with the more convincing rhetoric.

Quincey's opening statement explained how body-sitting worked. Penard had planned on this being the first half of his own speech, and of course Quincey emphasized the aspects that suited his own case.

"The important thing to remember�and of this the defendant was well aware�is that a healthy body can exist indefinitely without a being, or a consciousness, inside. Thus, a person can leave his body for short periods as a means of relaxation or meditation, and many people do. In the case of a prolonged absence, such as when a body sitter leaves his own body in order to sit another, all that is necessary is that the empty body be fed and otherwise attended to.

"A sick body, though, is another matter. An empty body cannot heal, cannot regenerate. For this reason, when the defendant abandoned the ailing body of Jonas Bennington, without either using the OBEr to call back Mr. Bennington or informing Mrs. Bennington to do so, he was, for all practical purposes, killing him. By the time Mrs. Bennington became aware that her husband's body was empty, rather than merely sleeping, he was already dead."

Penard wished his speech could have come first. Even quickly altered, its main point was the service Body Sitters performed; how years ago, some people who were suffering from a curable illness or undergoing chemotherapy or other painful treatments would simply leave their bodies, intending to return when they were well again.

They died, which only increased the public distrust of soul-skipping.

Then just two years ago, Body Sitters came into existence, supplying responsible people to inhabit the sick bodies and spare their clients the pain. Wonderful. I'm singing the praises of the corporation that sold my client down the river.

"Of course"�and here was the only real point that was Penard's to make�"we must not forget the danger to the sitter himself. Be cause patients do, of course, sometimes succumb to their illnesses. And if this happens before the sitter can leave the body, for example during sleep, the sitter will die as well. There have been cases of this happening.

"Craig Brooken left Jonas Bennington's body just before that body would have expired. Is there any among you who thinks he shouldn't have? Craig Brooken performed his job admirably, responsibly, and did so for as long as he possibly could�"

"So you asked Craig why he didn't call Jonas back before he left the body?" Michael asked at dinner.

"He said the body was about to die, wouldn't make it through the night, so there wasn't any point letting Jonas suffer for the few hours he'd have left."

"That sounds reasonable. Then what?"

"I had nothing more to ask him, so Quincey came up to cross-examine." Michael shook his head slowly. "Okay," Penard said, maybe you wouldn't have let him take the stand. But it was my decision, and I thought it was the best move."

"And was it?"

"I don't know," Penard admitted. "Quincey asked him how he was qualified to decide when Bennington was about to die. I objected. The judge sustained it. Then Quincey asked Craig if he had had any medical training. I objected, the judge sustained. Then Quincey asked the question two more times in two different ways, and Craig started waving his hands and shouting, "I know because I could see the freaking Grim Reaper coming for both of usl"

"Wonderful," Michael said. "Maybe you can change your plea to not guilty because of insanity."

Penard wasn't smiling. "This isn�t a criminal case, and I don't find anything about it amusing."


"No, Michael, I am. I don't know, maybe you were right the other day. Maybe I am getting too old for this."

"Nukedumps�to use your own expression."

Penard laughed for a moment, then stopped abruptly. He doesn't understand how badly I have to win this case. I don't care what anybody else thinks, I never have, but damn it all, I have to prove to myself that Nicholas Penard's still got it. "You know, I keep thinking I'm missing something here, something very basic: like why Sandra's suing in the first place. It isn't for the money, that's for sure; and if it were, she wouldn't have been willing to accept a manslaughter plea."

"I thought it was simple: she just can't stand him."

"Maybe, but isn't that carrying a vendetta a bit far? I mean, even Craig couldn't have been irritating enough in only three weeks�no, two, if she stopped speaking to him after the second�to warrant all this. Okay, how about�yes, now this does make sense: she's suing him because otherwise people might suspect she had paid him off to let Jonas die." Wait a second. "Then again�" he said excitedly.

"All right," Penard was saying to Craig an hour later, tossing his briefcase onto his client's sofa. "The truth. How much of what you told me about you and Sandra Bennington was fact?"

"All of it."

"Her once-a-day visits, mutual antagonism."

"I tried to be friendly."'

"Except that she finally did offer you money to let Jonas's body die, didn't she? You just stopped your story a bit soon." Craig didn't answer. "For God's sake, why didn't you tell me?"

Craig sat down. "She offered me a million dollars, but once Jonas was dead, and I came back to her, she refused to even see me."

"Obviously. Even if you could prove it, you could never force her to honor an arrangement like that."

"She didn't even return my calls. And now she's suing me, just out of spite. I was used, Mr. Penard. She used me."

"I feel somewhat used myself, Craig."

"Sure," he said in a whining voice, "and now you're abandoning me, right?"

An interesting choice of words. "No, I�m not abandoning you. I do regard you as scum, of course."

Craig shrugged his shoulders. "If you get me off, I can live with that."

"I bet. You know, it's going to be hard for me to get much satisfaction out of winning this case. I've got to remind myself that if you lose, Sandra Bennington would win, and I find her eagerness to have her husband killed just a bit more repulsive than your obnoxious manner, your own greed, and your lack of any moral sense. But damn, it's close."

Sure, talk big, Nicholas. You had no idea how to defend the man when you thought he was innocent of negligence. What do you do now that you know he killed Jonas on purpose?

And should you be proud you were sharp enough to figure it out, or worried that he fooled you for so long?

Penard's thoughts were leaning toward the latter, as he walked over to Michael's apartment. Even as he was getting out of the elevator, he wasn't sure what he was going to say. Would he just tell Michael what he'd learned? Would he ask his advice? Or would he offer to withdraw from the case entirely? As long as he'd agreed to represent Craig, he was determined to think only of his best interests.

He rang the doorbell and Michael came to the door, wearing only his shorts. "Sorry, Michael, I didn't realize you'd gone to bed this early. I just wanted to discuss the�"

"Uh, Mr. Penard?" Michael began.

"Mr. Penard?" Nicholas repeated.

"I'm not Michael. I'm Denise. I'm just in Michael's body. I think we met a few weeks ago?"

"Oh, I didn't recognize�," Penard stammered. "I mean, I�I can come back later, if you're�uh�"

'"No, no, it's all right," Denise said in Michael's voice. "We were asleep. I heard the doorbell and let Michael stay asleep because I've been very tired lately and my body needs the rest. Come on in."

Penard closed the door behind him. 'This is very awkward for me," he said to his son's body. "You mean you"�he crossed his index fingers together�"and then you just fell asleep like that?"

Denise giggled. "You ought to try it sometime. Switching bodies for sex can be a real kick, and you really get to understand the other person's feelings. Hey, you're not shocked or anything, are you? Come on, nobody gets hurt, and nobody even considers it very kinky anymore."

Penard shook his head. "Denise, I'm sixty-two years old. Physically, I'm still a relatively young man. But sometimes, when people are soul-skipping all around me, and Lazes are attacking my fingers, I feel incredibly old. I don�t expect you to understand, but it's as if a whole different world just came in and took over one day when I wasn't looking."

Denise put a hand on his shoulder. "Then you'll just have to start moving along with it, won't you? Don't you think your own parents�" She suddenly crossed her arms over Michael's chest and blushed. "Gee, the way I'm dressed. I feel funny standing here in front of you like this. Let me go get something�"

Penard put up his hand. "Don't bother on my account It may be your mind in there, but all I'm seeing is my son's body, not yours."

She sat down slowly, hunched over a bit, still self-conscious. "Well," she said, "that's what I get for trying to embarrass you before. Serves me right. Listen, I can get Michael for you if you want."

"No, thanks, it can wait for the morning. I wouldn't want you to wake him�you�up.'

"Well, maybe I can help you. Was it something you had to ask him? If I concentrate, you know, I can tell you just about everything Michael knows."

"No, I�" That's it. Remember the Wirtham case. He hires a body sitter for two hours, because he's afraid of dentists, and when the body sitter leaves, he knows enough to�" Tell me something," he said, "because I've never done this sort of thing. How much of Michael's memory will you retain once you're back in your own body?"

"Oh, probably not much. Depends on how much of it I deliberately call to mind while I'm in here, and I guess how long I stay. But what does this have to do with�"

"Because thanks to you, I think I can pull this off; a de facto victory, if not a de jure one."


"See," Penard said quickly, "I'll never be able to get my client off by proving he's innocent, but if he�"

The bedroom door opened and Michael, more asleep than awake, walked out in Denise's body, wearing nothing but a pair of red bikini panties. "Hey, what's going on out�Oh, hi, Dad, what are you�"

"Oh, my God," Penard said, covering his eyes, and Denise screamed and ran over to Michael, throwing Michael's body over her own.

Penard slipped out of the apartment without saying a word.

That's wonderful," Craig said. "I don't mind telling you, Penard, I had. my doubts about you. But this is terrific. And you won't be sorry, I promise you that when all this is over, I'm going to pay you a million dollars no, two million. Hey, it's the least I can do."

Penard went through the motions of thanking him, knowing full well he'd get luno, and there wouldn't be a thing he could do about it.

"Court is now in session, the Honorable Richard Patricks presiding."

The judge sat down, followed by everybody else in the room, but the defendant remained standing. "Your Honor, I�d like to address the court."

"You're out of order, Mr. Brooken."

"Nevertheless, this is important" He walked to the front of the courtroom, with the self-assured manner of a man used to having his own way. The bailiff took a step to restrain him, but judge Patricks shook his head. "No, let's hear what he has to say."

"Thank you, Your Honor. What Mr. Quincey has argued these past few days has been essentially correct. The sitter in this case did leave the client's body prematurely and, in so doing, brought about his death as certainly as if he'd murdered him. In fact, I suspect this to have been a deliberate act."

"Mr. Brooken," the judge said, "if this is meant as a defense, it's the most curious one I've ever heard."

"It's not a defense at all, Your Honor, because I'm not Craig Brooken. I'm Jonas Bennington."

It took several minutes for judge Patricks to silence the courtroom. Threatening to clear it was useless, because nobody could hear him.

Courtroom reporters were scribbling furiously, ready to dash for the phones as soon as somebody offered an explanation.

Bennington said that his consciousness had not died along with his body, but rather had remained in a semi-aware state. "Quite naturally, I assumed that this was death: being outside the body and having no body to return to. But last night, when Brooken left his body to meditate, I suddenly found myself inside it."

"I've heard enough" Quincey shouted. "This is absurd."

"Keep still, Fishtailer" Bennington snapped.

Quincey was startled to hear the old and private nickname.

"Mr. �Bennington? Jonas?"

"Of course Mr. Bennington�Jonas. Isn't that what I've been saying? Listen, don't ask me how it happened. Maybe Brooken and I have some sort of�affinity or something, because of all the time he spent in my body. All I know is, I'm happy to be alive again, and I don't intend giving up Bracken�s body for anything. I figure he owes me one."


"Quincey asked for a recess, and both the plaintiff and the defendant went over to confer with him. I tell you, Michael, my feelings were hurt."

"Finish the story, Dad. Quit milking it."

"Ahh, kids today have no theatrical sense. Okay, well, the three of them stood there for a minute, just looking at one another, and then Sandra walked to the back of the courtroom while the two men talked. She looked like a kid who'd been caught with her hand in the cookie jar."

"When the recess was over, I asked Patricks to throw out the charges against my client, since my client, for all practical purposes, no longer existed. He said no, he could still be sued in absentia. Then I pointed out that Jonas was still alive, for all practical purposes, but he said the negligence still could have occurred; in fact, in light of what Bennington had just said, it now seemed even more likely.

"Of course, I would just as soon have conceded the case right then and there, for all the difference it would make, but how would that have looked?"

"Anyway, Quincey stood up and said his client was dropping her suit, and Patricks asked Sandra if those were indeed her wishes, and all she could do was stammer out a yes."

"Then Patricks said, �The court sees no reason not to recognize you as Jonas Bennington. Furthermore, the court knows of no law that forces you to surrender Mr. Brooken's body, and, under the circumstances, will not create a precedent by giving such an order.' He took a lot longer to say all this, of course.

"Anyway, court was adjourned, and the last I saw them, the happily reunited couple was leaving the courtroom arm in arm."

Sandra Bennington watched as her presumed-to-be-dead husband, now in a body no older than her own, approached her. She greeted him with a very tentative hug, which most of the reporters present attributed to both her recent shock and to the awkwardness of seeing her husband in a new body.

Smiling for the photographers, the Benningtons walked silently into their waiting limousine. As they pulled away from the curb,' Jonas closed the window between them and the driver. "Well, cheesecake," he said, "it looks like you'll have me around for a long, long time."

The blood seemed to drain from her face. "Oh, no," she said slowly. "Oh, God, no. You're Brooken, aren't you? You're really Brooken."

Brooken grinned. "Pretty good, huh? It was all just crazy enough to be believable. I'm sure someone will figure it out soon enough, so it's unlikely anybody else will be able to pull this sort of thing off, but I think I'm safe. The element of surprise helped."


" a smart man. He was fooled for about five seconds. But he's also smart enough to know he's better off as my lawyer. And he agrees with what Penard told me, that once I'm legally recognized as Jonas, the burden of proof is on you to prove I'm not. And since I have all of Jonas's memories, that won't be very easy."

"I'll try anyway," Sandra, said. I'll get another lawyer, and I'll get everything so tied up in courts you'll never�"

"Forget it, cheesecake. You give me one bit of trouble, and I'll divorce you on the spot. Of course, I'll do that as soon as I get bored with you anyway, but you won't let that happen, will you?"

"...No," she said softly.

"That's fine. And you'd better take real good care of me, because I'm making a change in Jonas's will: if I die before reaching a ripe old age, no matter how, you get nothing. That's just to be safe. And to make sure you'll have to put in your time before you inherit a penny."

Brooken went on, but Sandra hardly heard him. She just nodded or shook her head as appropriate. This was impossible. It couldn't be happening. She wondered how much it would cost to hire a body sitter for the next forty years.

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