Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 11)

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip, along with her brother Duncan, had been forced to hit the road with the world's most dysfunctional sales team. Now, the siblings try their hand at hocking vacuums, and someone's true nature is revealed. This installment contains a smidgen of blood, but nothing graphic.

The sales team led by less-than-inspiring example.

Their first task at each house was to categorize its inhabitants as Good Credit or Bad Credit. The distinction seemed based primarily on whether or not there was a “black-person car” in the driveway.

“Penelope, gurl, it ain't nothin' against you,” Andrea drawled, her tongue thick with residual meth. “You'd never buy an Escalade instead of feeding your shorties. You're one of the good ones.”

As Pip contemplated how gratifying it would be to see Andrea hospitalized by one of the good ones, Ron spoke up: “That's because Penelope's an Oreo.”

Pip felt Duncan stiffen beside her. His opinion of Ron had already been sub-basement low, and Pip had never revealed to him the extent of her boyfriend's casual racism. Fearing an altercation, she glanced at her brother out of the corner of her eye. The expression he wore was puzzled rather than angry.

Pip, he said without speaking. What the hell...?

I know, Pip telegraphed miserably. But he's not like this all the time. Anyway, I can't go back to Mom's.

Duncan turned to Ron. “What do you mean, 'Oreo?'” he asked. As if he didn't know.

Ron was ready with an answer. He'd had this argument with Pip a dozen times. “Just that you're half-white, that's all. You've got a white dad. That makes you a special case.”

“We don't have a dad,” Pip said, her voice quavering with suppressed anger.

Ron chuckled. “You think that makes you sound so tough. But it's not like he's totally out of the picture. I know for a fact he still sends you birthday cards.”

“Once every three or four years, when he's sober enough to sign his name.”

“And birthday money.”

“Oh, sure, birthday money. Last year he sent me a check for—what was it, Duncan? Thirteen dollars?” Pip paused to swallow back a volley of curse words. “You know why he sent thirteen dollars, Ron?”

“I know you're going to tell me.”

Because he thought I was turning thirteen.”

Duncan whistled. “Wow, a whole nine years? He was only off by four on mine.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Eddie said, raising his hands in a gesture of conciliation. “Let's all settle. This conversation's getting a little heavy for my liking.”

His words were evidently sincere: though he still wore a smile like an ivory smear across his face, he was paler than Pip had ever seen him. His step had lost some of its bounce, his shoulders some of their snap. He looked tired. Pip wondered if he'd skipped his morning Red Bull, or if a day with her and Duncan was just that enervating.

They traveled on, Preston carrying the two demo vacuums on his shoulders like a pair of boomboxes.

Following a cursory evaluation of the Bad-ness or Good-ness of the customer's credit, the sales team would then knock on their front door. Nine times out of ten, this was the step that would defeat them. Most people weren't home at nine in the morning, for the simple reason that most people had jobs, no matter what their credit was like.

Also, those who were home sometimes hid behind their curtains. Pip didn't blame them. Kerry salesmen were as relentless as Jehovah's Witnesses. And far more obnoxious when spurned.

“We see you in there!” Preston would shout at the sliver of eye in the window. “Don't think you can hide from us. One of these days, you're going to open your door, and we're going to show you something amazing.”

The amazing thing was that no one called the police, Pip thought.

“They call the police sometimes,” Eddie said, startling Pip halfway into next week. “But we just get in our van and leave. There are plenty of neighborhoods out there.” He shook his head. “It's just a shame some people have to be so hostile.”

Pip was feeling hostile herself by the time they located a receptive customer.

The moment the middle-aged woman opened the door, a change swept through the sales team. Suddenly, they were all charm. Or, at least, what might seem like charm to somebody who had learned the word at an Amway seminar in Hell.

Preston greeted the woman, invited himself into her home, fed her the line about receiving a scholarship from Kerry. Few Kerry employees had more than half a college education, and none of them were currently enrolled, yet they refused to characterize the scholarship claim as a lie. Ron called it a technique. Eddie called it a sales lubricant. The rest of the sales team didn't seem to care what it was, so long as it got them in the door faster.

Preston ran through the demonstration, waxing rhapsodic about the Kerry's Ferrari-designed engine, throwing powders on the woman's floor and vacuuming them up again, enumerating all the skin-eating bugs that were probably living and pooping in her mattress. The woman listened intently and bought a vacuum. The sales team left, patting themselves on the back hard enough to dislodge a lung.

The next demonstration went less well. The man—a thirty-something white guy, Pip noted with some satisfaction—was living on the floor of an enormous house that contained little more than a sleeping bag and a hot plate. He seemed to have invited the team in for company more than anything else. They grumbled as they left.

“That was a bit of a waste,” Eddie said. His pallor was more pronounced. He wiped sweat from his brow with a shaking hand. “Never mind. We'll find a promising one for Pip and Duncan.”

He was true to his word. According to Ron's muttered insinuations, the next person who let them in had lottery winner written all over him, and lottery winners were notorious spendthrifts. Pip and Duncan were ushered forward with entreaties to “do it just like we did.”

And they did. Sort of.

The problem lay in the preceding three hours, which had been enormously boring. Neither Packard did well with boredom. By the time they were called upon to demonstrate, both Pip and Duncan were starving for stimulation, and it showed in their performance.

“Good morning, afternoon, or evening, sir or madam,” Duncan cried, thrusting his hand at the customer. “We're here on behalf of Kerry Vacuums with an exciting opportunity. Might we take a few minutes of your time?”

“Sure,” said the young man. He looked taken aback as he shook Duncan's hand. “What are you, some kind of door-to-door salespeople?”

“In a matter of speaking, sir, in a matter of speaking,” said Pip, picking up Duncan's over-ebullient tone. “What we really are is disadvantaged college students working our way through school. Kerry's given us scholarships, you see. I'm putting mine toward a degree in Underwater Basketry.”

“I'm pissing mine away on horse racing and KFC DoubleDowns,” Duncan said. “But that's neither here nor there. Let me ask you a question, sir.” He leaned toward the young man and lowered his voice. “Are you aware that a thing called dirt exists?”

The man blinked his dull, impassive eyes. “Huh?”

“It's true!” Pip broke in. “Dirt can be anywhere. It can be on your floor.” Brandishing one of the demo vacuums, she aimed the hose at the floor and flipped the power switch on and off. The motor gave a meaty rev. “It can be on your walls.” She aimed the hose at a wall and revved the motor again. “It can even be...” She aimed the hose at Duncan's head. “On you.”

She turned the vacuum on. With a mighty roar, the hose fixed itself to Duncan's scalp, slurping greedily at his hair.

“Ahhh!” Duncan screamed in mock terror. “It's sucking my will to live!”

Pip turned the vacuum off. The customer blinked again, his expression one of abject consternation.

“Our product sucks up all the dirt,” Pip explained.

“Our product sucks,” Duncan chimed in.

“So what do you say,” Pip held out her hand. “Do we have a deal?”

All this time, Pip had been ignoring the sales team, whose reactions were easy enough to imagine. Ron would be glowering. Andrea would be gaping. Preston would be gesticulating. Eddie, meanwhile, would be looking on in placid silence, maintaining his upbeat affect even in the face of such a staggeringly lunatic performance. Later he might take the siblings to task, but only in the most gentle, understated way. Eddie wasn't one for fireworks.

At least, that's what Pip thought.

Suddenly, Andrea shrieked: “Eddie!”

Pip turned just in time to see the team leader pitch backward in a swoon. Preston did his best to catch the falling body, but Eddie still hit the group hard, striking his left cheek against the front door jamb. A horrifying thwack echoed through the house.

“Oh God,” Preston cried. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.”

Pip's bowels turned to ice as she stared at Eddie's limp form. His breath came in fits and starts, the left side of his chest moving independently of the right. His nostrils were wide. His eyes were glassy. A line of blood skirted his hairline, neat and regular.

Like a seam.

“Jesus,” Duncan murmured at Pip's shoulder. “I didn't think we'd piss him off that much.”