Saturday, September 27, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 8)

Warning: Mature Themes, Sexual Situations

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had awoken after a bump on the head and struggled with the suspicion that she had been drugged. Now, she meets Charles and Duncan to discuss the status of their investigation. The plot thickens and revelations are made in this, another double-length installment.

Ron apologized. He usually did, sooner or later.

“I'm sorry, baby,” he said, stroking Pip's newly washed hair. “It's not your fault. Your brain doesn't work the way it's supposed to. There's no sense picking on crazy.”

“I'm not crazy,” Pip protested, disgusted by his touch, disgusted by his words, disgusted by him.

But when his caresses became heated, she surrendered the keys to her body and vacated the premises. She was half a galaxy away when he shuddered to completion.

Oh,” she managed to say at the last minute. It sounded less like an orgasm and more like a secretary suddenly remembering where she put that missing file. Ron didn't notice.

He never noticed.

****

The next morning, Pip went to class. It was her first time doing so in over a week. She had a strong aversion to sitting still and an even stronger aversion to pontificating old white men swaddled in cheap blazers and self-importance.

This particular old white man—Professor LeFleur, chairman of the Microbiology department—looked and sounded like a geriatric Jeff Goldblum the night after a crazy bender. He had a habit of throwing his mouth open, reconsidering, and slamming it shut again. Pip didn't know whether he was about to puke or explain Chaos Theory.

An hour into the lecture, a brunette girl named Virginia jabbed Pip in the shoulder and invited her to a friend's birthday party. Pip declined. She used Charles as an excuse.

“Charles Shreve?” said Virginia, her plump mouth gaping. “The guy on the radio who talks about corruption in the State legislature and like, the Asian carp epidemic?”

Pip nodded.

Virginia's jaw dropped still lower. “Holy shit. What's he like in bed?”

I've never seen him in bed, Pip almost responded, then thought better of it and answered: “Terrific. Each encounter is exactly two minutes long and features quotes from reputable primary sources. You can get in on the action by becoming a sustaining member.”

“Ladies,” interrupted Professor LeFleur, his bushy brows drawn low over his eyes like cornered animals. “Life, uh, finds a way,” he didn't add, though he might as well have. The resemblance really was uncanny.

Pip was grateful for the interruption. She didn't do parties, couldn't do parties, hadn't done parties since grade school. Parties meant bars, and bars meant alcohol, and alcohol carried all kinds of nasty associations. The last heavy drinker in Pip's life had walked out of it when she was two years old.

She was more comfortable with murder than with alcohol. She didn't bother trying to figure out what that said about her.

****

She stopped off at the library after class to work a shift. The shift ran over, which meant she didn't arrive at the Beirut Lounge until nearly 6:30. Charles and Duncan were already there. They had carpooled.

“You're late!” Duncan cried, motioning her over to a table near the back.

Pip removed her shoes and strode across the gigantic mattress that served as carpeting. The Beirut was, in essence, a bed with wooden trays inlaid at regular intervals. Atop each tray sat a tea set, an ornate hookah, and a wooden box containing various tobaccos. Unlike the other college students who made up the bulk of the Lounge's clientele, Pip didn't care much for smoking. She did, however, care very much for lying on a mattress after a long day's work. This predilection—paired with the suspicion that it would make Charles amusingly uncomfortable—had motivated her choice in venue.

Throwing herself down beside her brother, she seized a hookah stem, inhaled a mouthful of smoke, and expelled it in a single, showy puff.

“A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins,” she grumbled. “He arrives precisely when he means to.”

Grinning, Duncan took a drag off his own stem. “Mmm,” he hummed. “Finest weed in the South Farthing.”

The siblings indulged in a fit of giggles, during which Pip glanced at Charles out of the corner of her eye. With his prim suit and primmer expression, he looked woefully out of place. He coughed and waved his hand as Pip and Duncan's smokey exhales wreathed his face.

Pip leaned toward him across the tray. Taking another pull from the hookah, she blew out a smoke ring and said, in her best Caterpillar voice: “Who...are you?

“I'm afraid I can't stay long,” Charles said, all business. He removed his glasses and wiped them on his shirt tail. “There's still work to be done on tomorrow's feature. Editing, source verification—that sort of thing. I need to be at the studio by 7:30 to oversee it all. As does Duncan, incidentally.”

Pip frowned in mock dismay. “Nice to see you too, Charlie.”

Charles frowned in more genuine dismay. “Charles. Not Charlie.”

“Charlie sounds better.”

“It doesn't.”

“It does.” Pip turned to her brother. “Duncan, which sounds better to you: Charles Shreve, or Charlie Shreve?”

“Charlie Shreve, definitely,” said Duncan. “It's got that kind of—what do you call it? The same vowel sound repeated over again.”

“Assonance,” said Pip. She turned back to Charles. “Charlie Shreve's got assonance.”

“It doesn't,” said Charles. “Assonance refers to the repetition of vowel sounds in stressed syllables. The lie in Charlie isn't stressed.”

“Ah, the lie isn't stressed, yes, indubitably,” Pip teased, pushing an invisible pair of glasses onto the bridge of her nose with an index finger.

“Well, it's not,” said Charlie. He then shot himself in the foot by unconsciously pushing his own glasses up in just the same manner.

Pip burst out laughing. Between her explosion of mirth and Charles' puzzled demands to know just what was so funny, it was several moments before the conversation could proceed.

Finally, Pip wiped her eyes and put on her serious face. Or at least, as serious a face as she could muster. “You said you had news?”

“Well, yes,” said Charles. “Some.” He glanced from side to side, then hunched and lowered his voice. “But it needs to stay between us. If my source were exposed to the wrong people, it could mean her job.”

“I'm no narc,” Pip said.

Charles looked taken aback. “No, no—of course you're no—I mean...” He lowered his voice still further. “Just between us, then. After our conversation yesterday, I got in touch with my contact at the Martell Argus. Lucinda Wallis is her name. I guess you'd call her the editor-in-chief, though it seems a bit redundant, considering the Argus only has one editor. Anyway, a retraction like what you showed me yesterday—it would have had to go through her.”

Pip folded her hands in her lap. “Go on.”

“As soon as I mentioned the article in question, Lucinda—I don't know how else to put it—she erupted. She told me it hadn't been her call, that the order had come from above. Evidently, the publisher had it 'on good authority'”—Charles punctuated the phrase with quotation fingers—“that no murder had been committed. He never specified what that 'good authority' was. He just waltzed in and gave her an ultimatum: retract the article and terminate the reporter who wrote it, or be terminated yourself.”

Pip was a classic attention-deficit case; as such, she was seldom able to direct all her focus toward one specific person or thing. Now, as the hair on the back of her neck began to rise, she realized that Charles had her full attention. Every synapse in her brain not dedicated to the vital functions of breathing, blinking, and digesting was riveted to his voice.

“Go on,” she said again.

Charles shrugged. “That's it, really. Lucinda's furious. She's thinking about blowing the whistle, but I don't see that coming to much. No one cares about a small-time paper in a small-time meth haven like Martell.”

Pip thought for a moment, furrowing her brow. “Someone cares enough about that small-time paper to fire people over a retraction.”

Something miraculous happened then. Charles smiled.

It was an unassuming sort of smile. Little more than a quirk of the upper lip. A flash of teeth, no gums. Yet, for all its reserve, it transformed his face. He looked at least five years younger, and a good deal less stuffy.

“Yes,” he said. “Good. Very perceptive.”

The mattress seemed to lurch beneath Pip's bottom, throwing her world gleefully off-kilter. The sudden hammering of her heart was accompanied by giddy rush of blood to the head. She pressed a hand to the floor to steady herself.

“The publisher's the key,” Charles continued. “His name is George Luegner. He bought the paper from its original owner back in 2006.”

“George Luegner,” Pip repeated. “Why do I know that name?”

“You did a story on him last year,” Duncan broke in, addressing Charles. “Right?”

Charles nodded. “I did a whole series. It wasn't about him so much as Altair Capital, which funds the Martell Argus to the tune of about half its operating costs.”

Pip gasped. “Sure, I remember now! And Altair is owned by Luegner's brother-in-law. It was this whole big scandal.”

“Well, it would have been, had I been allowed to report on half the shady dealings Altair and Luegner have engaged in over the years. Unfortunately...” He heaved a leaden sigh. “...Altair also subsidizes Martell Public Radio. You can guess how my unedited report went over. Biting the hands that feeds, and all that. The version you heard had been pretty mercilessly defanged.”

“So you think this was a conflict-of-interest sort of thing? Like, maybe this Luegner guy didn't want that article printed because Altair didn't want it printed?”

Charles hesitated. “Well...it wouldn't out of keeping with his usual M.O. Of course, in this case, the implications are rather severe.”

“Because,” Pip said, with dawning realization, “it would mean that Altair is somehow involved in murder.”

“I wouldn't like to say.” Charles paused. “Actually, I would like to say, but I'm not sure it would be responsible of me to do so. But, yes. Maybe.”

The three of them allowed that conclusion to hang in the air for a few minutes. Charles picked up the kettle and poured himself some tea, which he once again drank sans milk. Duncan practiced making smoke rings. Pip drummed her fingers on the tray.

“So, speaking of murder,” she said, after what seemed a suitable interval. “You'll never guess what happened to me yesterday.”