Saturday, October 25, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 12)

Warning: Strong Language, Mature Themes

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip, along with her brother Duncan, gave the world's worst sales demonstration and sent their team leader into a very familiar sort of fit. Now, as they return to the Kerry branch office, Pip overhears a conversation with otherworldly implications.

What a waste, Pip might have thought to herself. All this trouble, all this subterfuge, and for what—confirmation that Kerry Vacuums is racist and morally bankrupt? That's not exactly news.

We really shouldn't have gone so bat-shit with our demonstration, she might have continued. Now they'll know we weren't serious about joining the company.

I'm going to punch Preston in the throat, she might have added, an especially apt sentiment given the way he was currently driving: one wheel on the sidewalk, the other periodically kissing the curb, the wipers skittering frantically back and forth across the bone-dry windshield.

(“In my defense,” Preston said when Andrea screamed at him to drive straight, “I'm really high right now.”)

Pip might have thought any of these things, and dozens more. But her mind was otherwise occupied. She couldn't tear her eyes away from Eddie. He lay in the backseat with his head in Ron's lap, his expression taut and his face slick with gore. There was so much blood. Head wounds bled a lot—Pip knew this. But the amount of crimson on display seemed far more than a single cranium should be able to accommodate.

There were other wounds now: tidy delineations of his wrists, throat, and sternum. His body was becoming a stained glass window, each segment separated from the others by bloody interstices. If Eddie found this frightening, he didn't let it show.

“Some kind of virus,” he remarked. It was the first sentence he'd spoken since regaining consciousness.

“What kind of virus does that?” Andrea screeched, gesturing at Eddie's unraveling form. Her teeth her clenched and her eyes were wide. She was seated as far away from Eddie as possible, pressing herself against a window and shielding herself with her trembling hands. She seemed fearful of contamination.

“I bet it's Ebola,” Preston said.

“You guys canvassed any neighborhoods in West Africa recently?” asked Duncan.

“What if it's second-hand smoke?” said Andrea. “You know, from the meth?”

“Meth doesn't do that,” Preston said.

“How do you know? I saw a commercial one time where drugs turned someone's brain into an egg.”

“Would everybody shut up?” Ron shouted, startling his companions into silence. He shifted, repositioned Eddie's head, wiped a lock of bloodied hair from the team leader's brow. “All we know is that Eddie's really sick right now. Let's stop arguing and just get him back to the office.”

“Shouldn't we take him to the hospital?” Pip asked.

“We'll get him back to the office,” Ron repeated, “and let Larry take care of it.” He glared at each member of the sales team in turn. “Is that okay with everybody?”

There were nods all around. Pip wondered when Ron had gotten so commanding. It was probably around the same time he'd gotten positive.

“Don't worry, Eddie,” Ron soothed. “We've got you, man. We won't leave you until this is all sorted out.”

****

They left him well before it was all sorted out.

Five minutes after pulling into the office parking lot and three after dumping Eddie unceremoniously on the sofa in the manager's office, Ron and Preston decided to complete the inventory of the supply room they'd started earlier that week. A short time later, Andrea remembered that she had to groom her guinea pigs and took off to buy some brushes. That left Pip and Duncan to look after Eddie, who had since relapsed into oblivion.

“This is stupid,” Duncan said after a quarter of an hour. “I'm calling an ambulance.” He retrieved his phone from his pocket, looked at it, and sighed. “No bars. I need to step outside.”

“Don't be gone too long!” Pip shouted at her brother's back. “He might die right in front of me.”

“That wouldn't be very positive of him.”

Duncan left the office and disappeared down the hallway. Biting her lip, Pip resumed her vigil. Eddie didn't stir.

But something else did. From an indeterminate location within the building, a sonorous baritone rang out: “What do you mean he's sick? What the hell's he sick with?”

There was a pause while someone—Duncan?—responded.

“Well, God damn it,” the mystery voice said. “I just came in to do some paperwork. I don't have time for this shit.”

This declaration was followed by the pounding of elephantine footsteps, which drew closer to Pip with each passing second.

Reflecting after the fact, Pip would be unable to rationalize what she did next. Perhaps the approaching figure overwhelmed her with the sheer loudness of its movements. Perhaps some sprout of journalistic instinct told her she was about to hear something incriminating. Perhaps, like so many of her actions, it was done on impulse. Whatever the reason, she dropped to the floor and began scanning the room for a place to hide.

Her gaze fell upon a life-sized cardboard cutout of George W. Bush festooned with Hawaiian leis and a homemade banner reading THE DECIDER. She darted behind it without a second thought. The unknown person came crashing into the office a moment later, cursing and striking the door with his fist. He was a big man, and a sweaty one. His goatee glistened and his white polo shirt was plastered to the center of his chest.

“God damn it, Eddie,” he grunted. “Get up. I know you're not dead.”

When that failed to rouse the patient, the man shoved him in the ribs. Pip watched him do it through the space between George W.'s waist and cocked elbow. She grimaced as the man shoved Eddie again and again, refusing to relent until Eddie struggled awake.

“Why're you hitting me?” Eddie asked. The words were clumsy and slurred, a far cry from the crisp call-to-action he'd performed at the morning meeting.

Ignoring the question, the man demanded: “How long have you been like this?”

“I dunno,” said Eddie. “N'hour, maybe. Just a lil' bit sick. S'nothing serious, Larry, really s'not.”

“I'll be the judge of that.”

The man strode to a heavy oak desk and picked up a phone. It was like no phone Pip had ever seen. For starters, it was rooted to the wall by no less than eight different cables, several of them sparking with faint luminescence when the receiver was lifted from its cradle. The mouthpiece was augmented with a collapsible metal funnel, the inside of which was etched with circuitry and what looked like hieroglyphics. Instead of buttons, the front of the phone sported a thumb pad, to which the man now pressed one of his meaty digits. The funnel rotated around the mouthpiece, its progress marked by several metallic clicks, as if some mechanism were sliding into place.

There was a tone of sorts. It sounded like a dial-up modem caught in a garbage disposal and was followed by the unmistakable noise of someone picking up at the other end of the line.

“This is Larry Guyde,” the man said into the receiver. “I've got a bone to pick with you.”

He waited for a moment, listening to a response that was too soft for Pip to hear. Then he glared at the phone.

“Jesus,” he said. “I can't hear a thing you're saying. The reception on this thing sucks.” He paused again. “Yes, I know you're a quarter of a million miles away. That's no excuse for shoddy craftsmanship. Speaking of which...” He threw Eddie an accusatory side-eye. “Your prototype's gone off.”

This seemed to send Eddie into a panic. He darted upright, heaving himself into a sitting position and clutching his hair in terror. “I haven't gone off!” he cried. “I'm just sick. Tell them I'm just sick.”

“He says he's just sick. But he would say that, wouldn't he.” Another pause. “It's exactly like the others, yes. You can imagine how frustrating that is. He's your proof of concept. How am I supposed to have any faith in the concept when the God damn proof is denaturing before my eyes?”

Eddie's panic escalated. “I'm not denaturing.”

“You're denaturing, Eddie,” Larry insisted. “Just look at yourself. You're a mess. You've got three weeks, at the outside.”

“But they can fix me.”

Larry was silent. He was listening to the voice on the other end of the telephone line.

“They can fix me, Larry,” Eddie said. “They can, right? Ask them if they can fix me.”

Still Larry made no reply.

Eddie emitted a choked sob. “Larry.”

“Shut up, for Christ's sake,” Larry said. “I'm having a hard enough time hearing the guy through this jury-rigged piece of shit without you wailing in my ear.”

Eddie burst into tears. A cold feeling of unreality seeped into Pip's bones, temporarily inoculating her against any emotion more intense than vague unease. She listened to Eddie cry, and part of her recalled that she'd never liked him in the first place, and another part of her was heartbroken in spite of that, but neither part was able to gain purchase in the anesthetized landscape of her mind. She only hoped her microphone was picking all of this up.

Just then, something else began to wail, as if in sympathy with Eddie's predicament. A siren. Larry recognized the sound a split-second after Pip did.

“Shit,” he said. “They better not have...” He leaned across the desk and peered through the window. “They did. Those assholes. They called an ambulance.” Another pause. “Yes, I know—we've got plenty more to discuss. It'll have to wait.”

With that, he slammed the phone back into its cradle.