Saturday, October 4, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 9)

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had met with Charles and Duncan at the Beirut Lounge to discuss the status of their investigation, with Charles revealing possible connections to one of his previous stories. Now, the three formulate a plan to infiltrate Kerry Vacuums, and Pip and Duncan experience the supreme creepiness of a corporate pep rally.

Duncan and Charles met Pip's tale of suburban slaughter with different reactions. The former seemed unbelieving. The latter seemed both unbelieving and in desperate need of cardiac defibrillation.

“Sorry,” Charles interrupted. “You broke into a person's house. And there was a dead body-” He paused and made wild grasping motions with his hands like a fisherman trying to get hold of an invisible tuna. “A dead body,” he repeated. “Lying there. On the dining room floor.”

“Not just dead,” Pip said. “Mangled.”

“And someone knocked you unconscious.”

“Yep. I still have the bump.”

“Nuh-uh,” said Duncan. It was his first contribution to the conversation in several minutes.

“Yeah-huh,” said Pip. “Look.” She showed them the spot at the base of her skull, which had firmed into a blue-black goose-egg in the intervening hours. “I think they drugged me, too. There must have been something they didn't want me to see.”

“Someone drugged you.” Charles' voice had been steadily rising in both pitch and volume, and traces of his original accent had begun to creep in. Other Beirut patrons were casting discreet glances his way. Evidently realizing that he was making a scene, he hunched and adopted a conspiratorial whisper. “Do you have proof that this happened?”

Pip frowned. “Well, no. I thought about getting a blood test, but the idea came too late. I guess they can't detect G.H.B. after twelve hours.”

“What about the rest of it?”

Charles' eyes were clear and alert. There was concern there, but it was outbalanced by a kind of ghoulish excitement. He seemed scarcely able to contain himself. Pip knew the old cliche about reporters and blood, how one was allegedly drawn to the other by a thread of unsavory instinct. It was unnerving to see that instinct in action—especially in someone she respected.

“I didn't take anything from the house, if that's what you mean,” she said. “I was already trespassing. I didn't want to tamper with evidence on top of that.”

This wasn't even a partial truth. Pip had been too horrified and fascinated by the crime scene to think about evidence one way or the other. Her phony explanation seemed to satisfy Charles, however.

“If we're lucky, we'll have another opportunity,” he said. “I'm not sure I understand the connection yet, but Kerry Vacuums might be worth investigating. Do you know of some way we can insinuate ourselves into the organization?

“Sure,” said Pip. “They're always begging me to shadow them on their rounds. It's part of their recruitment process.”

Charles gave her an approving nod. “Good. Sign us up to shadow, then.”

The idea of going undercover with the pride of M.P.R. sent an effervescent jolt up Pip's spine. There was just one problem. “I think it's better if I go it alone, Charlie.”

“Why's that?”

“My boyfriend knows your voice.”

Because I spend several hours a day listening to it, she somehow refrained from adding. Because your dulcet tones fill my shabby apartment from dawn till dusk. Because there are days when your disembodied presence is the only thing distracting me from how alone I actually am.

She might have written it all down in a fan letter, once. But not now. Not having met him. The thought of her former devotion was almost comical.

Charles considered the issue. “I can change my voice, if that's our only hurdle.”

He spoke the words in flawless Received Pronunciation, the kind of accent people had on the BBC World Service. Pip's stomach fluttered and her face burned. She nearly went cross-eyed in glee.

Duncan was less impressed. “Nobody that posh works at Kerry,” he scoffed. “If Pip needs a partner, I'll go.”

It was a sound strategy. Ron liked Duncan—he wasn't threatened by him the way he'd be threatened by a foreigner. Duncan's presence at Kerry would arouse few suspicions. For all Ron knew, Brother and Sister Packard had made a joint decision to abandon their life of noble poverty for a bright future in Sales.

A minute later, it was settled.

“I'll need the day off work,” Duncan told Charles.

“Technically Padma's the only one who can authorize that,” Charles said, “but I'll figure out something to tell her.” He looked at his watch. “We need to get going. I'll pay the bill.”

He wandered off in search of the cash register.

The moment he was out of ear shot, Duncan leaned toward his sister and whispered: “You're a terrible influence.”

“On who?” she asked. “You?”

“No. Charlie. He's going to lie to the producer for me. He never would have done that before.”

Pip's attention drifted. She watched Charles flag down a Lounge employee on the other side of the mattress. “He's got a stick up his ass, huh?”

Duncan snorted. “Stick, hell. He's got a redwood forest up there.”

Much as she hated to admit it, Pip could see Duncan's point. Charlie did have a certain neurotic edge to him. Yet, before she'd even finished processing this thought, an image flickered across her cortex: Charles smiling, his mouth turning up and his eyes going all crinkly at the corners.

Yes, good, he'd said. Very perceptive.

Her stomach fluttered again. She scolded herself for being so susceptible to praise, but her self-reproach did nothing to quell the rush of blood to her cheeks.

****

“Gooooood morning, Kerry Family!” Eddie hollered. He stood at the front of the room on a tiled podium, resplendent in his navy business-suit and shit-eating grin. “Are we feeling positive this morning?”

“Wooooo!” cheered the Kerry sales team, the members of which had arranged themselves on a set of bleachers in four rows of four. They ranged in age, gender, and appearance, though the mean fell somewhere around twenty-ish, male, and desperately groomed. Their hair was gelled, their suits were cheap, and their cologne was strong enough to defy the Geneva Convention's prohibition on chemical warfare.

Pip and Duncan sat on the shore of this polyester sea and tried very hard not to look as frightened as they felt.

“I'm glad you're feeling positive!” Eddie cried. “I'm feeling positive! You're feeling positive! And I'm feeling positive about you feeling positive! Ain't no family like our Kerry Family! Am I right?”

“Wooooo!” the sales team cheered again, and then launched into an unprompted chant: “Ker-ry! Fam-i-ly! Ker-ry! Fam-i-ly!”

Pip murmured to Duncan through the side of her mouth: “The last time a group of young people got this fired-up about family, Sharon Tate wound up dead.”

“If they start handing out Nike shoes,” Duncan murmured back, “I walk.”

“I understand we have some guests here this morning,” said Eddie. “Ron, do you want to introduce your friends?”

Ron stood, looking pompous. He was proud to have brought fresh blood through the office door—he'd told Pip as much at least a dozen times. When he spoke, it was with the air of an aristocrat presenting two newcomers at an exclusive gentlemen's club. “This is my fiancee, Penelope Packard,” he said, gesturing at Pip, “and this is her brother, Duncan.”

“Welcome!” came the reply. The sentiment was much less effective for having been shouted by sixteen manic voices in unison. In fact, it caused Pip to jump and clutch her chest. The sales team laughed.

“Pip and Duncan will be riding with Ron, Preston, Andrea, and myself,” Eddie announced. “If you get the chance, take a minute to say hi to them. Let them feel your positivity!”

“Positivity!” the team shrieked as one.

“This is the creepiest experience I've ever had,” Duncan whispered into Pip's ear, and she agreed with a nod.

Neither of them knew how much worse it was about to get.