Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 5)

Warning: Strong Language

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had successfully recruited radio journalist Charles Shreve to her cause, suffering grave romantic disappointment in the process. Charles, it seems, has been having prophetic dreams about Pip. Now, the two meet in a cafe to discuss how the investigation should proceed.

“No one's dreamed about me before,” Pip said, though this wasn't quite true. During Pip's infancy, her mother had suffered recurrent nightmares in which her daughter was abducted by aliens.

Ron sometimes dreamed that Pip had thinner thighs, a phenomenon he attributed to his “needs as a man” not being met.

Pete dreamed that Pip was made of chrome. Then again, Pete dreamed that everything was made of chrome. His dream world was a 'shroom-soaked chrome ecosystem replete with spirit animals and talking cars that berated him for his sexual inadequacies.

No one had ever dreamed something interesting about Pip. That was closer to the truth.


Pip propped her elbows on the little round cafe table. She'd hardly touched the cheese Danish in front of her. She'd been too distracted by Charles' failure to put milk in his tea. A minority herself, Pip was usually the last to deal in lazy stereotypes. Still, though. An English person who didn't put milk in his tea—didn't that border on blasphemy?

“Was I hot in your dream?” Pip asked. It had been thirty minutes since she'd met Charles, and already she was getting overly familiar. In the end, shyness always ceded the field to her natural tactlessness.

“Sorry?” said Charles, turning an undignified but rather endearing shade of pink.

He had already divulged the dream in question. Pip standing at a bus stop, blood in her hair and a vacuum cleaner in her arms. A green tint to the sky, a high-pressure hum in the air. Pip flinging the vacuum to the ground, screaming: Give him back, you sons of bitches! GIVE HIM BACK!

Calm down, Dream Charles had admonished. Hysteria won't solve anything.

First they killed my neighbor, Dream Pip had said. Then those others. Now him. They think they can take whoever they want. But they can't. Have. HIM.

It was an odd little nightmare, and not a particularly sexy one.

That didn't stop Pip from teasing.

“How about my cans?” she asked. She cupped her hands in front of her chest in case there was any confusion about the terminology. “Did I have big cans?”

“Cans?” said Charles, with a look of consternation. “They weren't—I mean, not any bigger than usu—I mean, not that I know what they look like usually—er—” He cleared his throat with a touch more force than was strictly necessary. “Perhaps we should stick to the topic at hand.”

Snorting in amusement, Pip nevertheless took pity on the man. She reached into her purse and withdrew a folded piece of printer paper.

“After my neighbor kicked it, I poked around online,” she said. “There was an article about the murder on the Martell Argus website. Nothing detailed, just a sort of WOMAN FOUND DEAD AT ADAMS & DEMETRIOS STREET, POLICE SUSPECT FOUL PLAY type of thing. I wanted to print a copy to show you, but when I looked for it again this morning-” She unfolded the paper and spread it on the table between them. “-someone had replaced it. With this.”

Charles adjusted his glasses, then peered at the print-out.

The editors of the Martell Argus wish to issue a retraction, it read.

In a previous news item, we reported on an unexplained death at the University Apartments building at Adams & Demetrios. We stated that the police suspected foul play. In fact, there was no death at University Apartments. The article was based on an erroneous tip called in to our Community Crime Watch Hotline.

We regret the error. The staff responsible have been terminated.

Charles' breath caught at the last word.

“Terminated,” Pip repeated for emphasis. “They took down the article and fired the person who wrote it. They can't do that over one little mistake, can they? I mean, you're the journalist.”

Charles furrowed his brow. “I wouldn't have thought so. Not unless it was part of an ongoing pattern of shoddy reporting. I know Martell Public Radio wouldn't terminate a person over something like that. Then again...” He chuckled ruefully. “...MPR isn't what you'd call a prestigious organization.”

Pip was momentarily taken aback. After a life of grinding poverty and demeaning minimum-wage work, MPR seemed like a very high-status outfit indeed.

“You think there's been a cover-up,” Charles continued, anticipating the thrust of the conversation. He tapped the paper. “This is suggestive, I'll give you that. Suggestive, but not definitive. It could be chalked up to poor communication.”

“Yeah,” said Pip, “but put it together with what I saw a week before, and things start to look shady.”

She related, in brief, her encounter with the neighbor lady. The outlandish proportions of her body. The seams running over her skin. The garbled way she'd spoken. Charles listened closely, looking both unnerved and fascinated.

“Oh, shit,” Pip said, interrupting herself in mid-sentence.

“What?” said Charles. He followed her penetrating gaze and found its target: an unkempt college boy in a Pizza Don's uniform. The boy was at the cafe counter arguing with a barista. From what Charles could hear, he was trying to order something called a Triple-Fierce Freedom Latte with Cheese.

“Shit,” Pip said again. “God damn it. I forgot Pete worked around here.”

“Pete?”

“My roommate. He's a drug addict. He'll tell on me if he sees me.”

“Tell on you?”

Pip cringed as Pete began to turn in their direction. Fortunately, he dredged up a few more words for the barista and turned back to deliver them with maximum face-to-face ferocity.

“Charlie, quick!” Pip hissed. “Get under the table.”

“Under the table?”

“Is there an echo in here? Hurry. I'm screwed if he sees you with me.”

Charles stared at her. She gazed back, pleadingly. When, after several moments, it became clear that she was not kidding, Charles slid from his chair and crawled under the table, wearing the pained look of a man who couldn't quite believe his life had come to this.

Every muscle in Pip's body tensed as Pete walked past on his way to the door. Fortunately, Pete was too busy grumbling about the barista's incompetence to notice his roommate. That, or he was too high. His pupils were blown wide, and he had drawn a crude picture of Bill Murray on one side of his face with a purple magic marker.

When Pete was well and truly gone, Pip reached under the table and gestured for Charles to come out.

“It's Charles, by the way,” Charles said, climbing into his chair.

Pip frowned. “Eh?”

“Charles. Not Charlie. I don't like Charlie.”

Pip's frowned deepened. “Oh.”

“I'll look into this.” Charles slipped the paper into his pocket. “To the extent that I can, anyway. I don't have that much clout.”

“More than me,” Pip said, which was true, but not as true as she imagined.

Mumbling something about needing to get back to the office, Charles left. Pip remained in her seat, picking distractedly at her Danish.

Five minutes later, her phone rang. It was Ron.

Someone else had died.