Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 7)

Warning: Strong Language

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had discovered another murder victim and gotten knocked unconscious for her troubles. Now, she awakes in her own bed and tries to piece together what really happened in that blood-soaked suburban madhouse.

For untold eons, she wandered the hidden corridors of her headspace, perambulating through half-decayed memory and half-suppressed emotion. Her inner world unfurled before her like a flower bud at sun-up. The smell was acrid and the hue sickly. The sight of everything laid out before her confirmed a fact Pip had long suspected: she was not a happy girl.

She was even less happy when she woke herself up by vomiting on the bed sheets.

“Eurgh!” said Ron's voice. “Gross. You can't do that in the toilet?”

A succession of gastric spasms prevented Pip from answering right away. Fluid ran freely from her eyes and nose as her stomach tried to invert itself. The noises she made were vile. The smell was worse.

When at last the heaving subsided, Pip rolled away from the cooling puddle and pressed her hands over her eyes. The dim light of the bedside lamp pierced her retinas like a razor blade. Her head pounded. Her hands shook.

“You all right?” asked Ron. He sat at the foot of the bed looking every inch the concerned boyfriend. Only the tension in his brow gave air to the truth: he was nervous. For some reason.

“Uhn,” Pip said. Then, after collecting herself: “What's happening? Why am I hung over?”

“You hit your head on a table,” Ron said. “While trespassing, I might add. If my co-workers and I hadn't carried you out of there, the cops probably would have hauled you in for questioning. Whenever they decided to show up.” He chuckled. It was the phoniest chuckle Pip had ever heard. “We called them before we left, you know. I don't want you under the impression that we found a dead body and did nothing. It's just...she'd called us that morning. To have her Kerry serviced. And then we walked in—we found her like—well, like that, and—we sort of thought...” He chuckled again. “It would have looked suspicious, right? Us being found at the scene like that?”

Pip was too preoccupied to comment on how suspicious or not-suspicious it might have looked. “Table?” she repeated, doubtfully. Then, with a gasp, she bolted upright. “Table nothing. Someone hit me.”

Ron snorted. “Don't be stupid.”

“I'm not stupid. I remember. I was leaning over to examine...something...” She paused, then pounded her open palm with a fist. “The vacuum. It was all bright inside, like a house in one of those Thomas Kinkade paintings.”

“Thomas who?”

“You know, that crappy painter everybody's grandma likes, the one who does prints of little pastel cottages and got in trouble for peeing on Winnie the Pooh.” When Ron persisted in looking blank, Pip waved a dismissive hand. “It doesn't matter. What matters is that, while I was looking at this lit-up vacuum, someone came along and chopped me in the back of the head.”

She pressed her fingers to the base of her skull and hissed in pain. The flesh there was tender.

“Why would someone karate chop you in the head?” Ron asked, shooting for nonchalant and missing by several light years. His sudden inability to meet her gaze told Pip all she needed to know.

She narrowed her eyes. “You did it.”

Ron's expression curdled. “What are you on about? You think I'm strong enough to knock someone unconscious with my hand?”

He wasn't, Pip realized. A half-second later, another possibility presented itself. “Preston,” she cried. “Preston was—oh my God, he was in the Marines. Of course. He used his military training to incapacitate me.”

Ron's gaze drifted further afield. He was starting to go red in the face. “Jesus, Pip! What's more likely: that my out-of-shape, ex-military co-worker decided to take you down for looking at a damn vacuum cleaner, or that you did something stupid and knocked yourself out on the edge of a table?” He gave a derisive chuckle. “I mean, which one sounds more like you?”

The second one, Pip thought, but she didn't say it aloud. Ninety percent of her arguments with Ron ended in forfeit courtesy of her crippling self-doubt. She was determined that this would not be one of them.

“What time is it?” she demanded.

Scarcely able to conceal his relief at the perceived change in subject, Ron checked his watch. “Three-thirty.”

“Three-thirty?” Pip's exclamation would have woken the upstairs neighbors, had there still been any. “I've been out for five hours?”

“Looks like it.”

“People don't stay unconscious for hours! Not unless they have some kind of medical condition. I should have been out for a few minutes, tops.”

“I don't know what you want me to say.”

“This doesn't make any sen...ow.” The bit of brain behind the bridge of her nose chose that moment to fling itself against the walls of its bony prison. Her eyes watered, and her stomach roiled. “What is this? Why am I sick? I haven't eaten anything weir-” She broke off abruptly. “Wait a minute. Puking. Hung over. Unconscious for five hours." Her throbbing eyeballs waxed larger to accommodate her shocked expression. "You-! Did you drug me?”

“You need more sleep, Pip,” Ron said, too quickly. Standing, he strode to Pip's side and pushed her down onto the mattress, ignoring her shriek as her hair landed in the puddle of vomit. “You're sounding crazier than usual. Have you been taking your medication?”

“I've been taking something, clearly,” Pip raged. “What was it? Rohypnol? Special-K? I hear G.H.B. produces a hangover just like what you get with alcohol. What did you give me, you son of a bi-”

Brrzt! The door buzzer sounded, interrupting the argument before it could descend into violence.

“That'll be Adam and Josh,” said Ron. He turned to leave. “We'll be playing Bomberman in the living room,” he told Pip over his shoulder. “Take a nap, get yourself cleaned up, then come join us. And no more of this crazy date-rape shit.” He punctuated this point with a pause. “Our friends hate your Psycho Girlfriend act.”

'Our friends,' hell, Pip scoffed inwardly. Adam and Josh were Ron's people; they were no more Pip's friends than were Andrea, Eddie and the bunch. Of course, since Ron had gone out of his way to systematically alienate most of Pip's high school buddies, she had no choice but to rely on his connections for social gratification. A strained joke here, a shared game of Mario Tennis there—that was all she got these days. It was pitiful.

Sighing, she sank deeper into the vomit bed and wished someone would contact her.

And then someone did.

Got your number from Duncan, the message read. Have news. Can we meet? Charles Shreve.

Pip snickered. What kind of stuffy person signed a text message—with his full name, no less?

Can we meet? She re-read the words half a dozen times. They sounded vaguely clandestine. No doubt the Pip of Yesterday would have been able to read an entire library of trashy romance novels into that line. The Pip of Today, however, had met Charles in person. There was nothing romantic or clandestine about him.

I have news too, she texted back. Beirut Lounge. 6 p.m. Tomorrow.

She set down her phone. Picked it up again. Sent another message.

Duncan's coming too.

She hadn't actually asked Duncan, but she was sure he'd be game. Anyway, if Pip could skip another German class to attend the meeting, Duncan could skip his weekly round of Dungeons & Dragons. This was important. Something sinister was afoot.

Her youthful optimism partially restored, Pip hopped out of bed and went to take a shower.