Saturday, November 1, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 13)

Warning: Strong Language, Mature Themes, Graphic Violence

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had overheard a mysterious conversation between Kerry manager Larry Guyde and his otherworldly associates. Now, she takes her findings to Charles, stealing a vacuum and pissing off her roommate in the process.

The paramedics never came in. Presumably, Larry had intercepted them and convinced them they weren't needed.

Pip stayed hidden behind George W. for several minutes while Eddie cried on the couch. His sobs grew weaker until they became dainty snores. Peering out from behind the cardboard cut-out, Pip confirmed that he was asleep. Evidently there was only so much stress a person could endure before their body hit the reset switch.

I'm coming out, Pip texted Duncan as she tiptoed past Eddie's slumbering form. You won't believe what just happened.

You'll have to tell me later, Duncan texted back. I just hopped a bus back to town. I can't deal with any more of this craziness.

Pip couldn't blame him. She'd had more than enough craziness herself.

Exiting the building, she walked toward her car, stopped dead, doubled back, and swiped one of the demo vacuums out of the sales van. No one saw her do it. Ron and Preston were still checking inventory, and the other salespeople were out on their rounds. Larry, meanwhile, was at the back of the building screaming into the face of a chastened-looking EMT. Pip evaded the manager easily, spiriting the vacuum across the parking lot and wedging it into her backseat alongside some old sweaters and a broken computer monitor.

She texted Duncan one more time as she pulled out of the parking lot: Where's Charlie right now?

****

Five minutes later, Pip was on her way to Charles' house in nearby South Pyle. Duncan had been hesitant to relay the address, which had been listed in the M.P.R. company directory under the bold-face phrase EMERGENCIES ONLY. When her cell phone rang, Pip answered it under the assumption that it was Duncan calling to dissuade her from visiting his boss at home.

“Hey, Pip,” said a slow, sloppy voice. “Where the hell are you?”

It was Pete. He sounded annoyed.

“In my car,” Pip sighed. “What do you need?”

“A ride to work. My shift starts in ten minutes.”

“You better grab a cab, then. I'm not even in the area.”

“I don't have money for a cab. I just bought that clubbing shirt.”

Pip sighed again, more heavily this time. In typical Pete fashion, her roommate had managed to spend forty-five dollars on a T-shirt, which was to be worn only on those nights when he visited the clubs to replenish his store of mushrooms. He needed it, he'd said, to “blend in.” Pip's mind boggled at the idea of trying to blend in while wearing the image of a naked woman with light-up L.E.D. nipples.

“Take the bus,” she said.

Pete made a retching sound. “I hate the bus. The seats smell like defeat.”

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

“Say you're coming home,” he commanded, testily. “I know you don't have class right now. I'm looking at your schedule as we speak.”

Pip cursed herself for posting her school schedule on the refrigerator. It had seemed practical at the time.

“Sorry,” she said. “I'm busy.”

There was a sullen silence on the other end of the line.

“Fine,” Pete huffed at last. “Whatever.” Then he added: “When are you going to clean the blood off my ceiling? ”

“I'm not. Clean it yourself.”

“I don't know how to clean blood off a ceiling!”

“I'm not a fount of experience myself.”

“It's probably stained by now. It'll take ages!”

His strident tone was like a finger plucking Pip's frayed nerves.

“I could be wrong,” she said, “but I think that's your problem.”

Another sullen silence. Several moments elapsed before Pete spoke again.

“Bitch,” he spat, and hung up the phone.

****

The house was a brick two-story a quarter mile from downtown South Pyle. Tidy but not antiseptic, it had green shutters and a hydrangea on either side of the front door. The bicycle tethered to the front stoop was an unexpected touch. It made Charles seem young—Bohemian, even. Maybe, Pip mused, he wasn't as uptight as she'd been led to believe.

That thought died an unceremonious death when Charles answered the door in a suit and tie.

“Pip?” he said, frowning. “How did you-”

“Duncan gave me your address,” Pip said. She hoisted the demo vacuum above her head. “Can I come in? This thing is really heavy.”

“I suppose,” Charles said after a moment's hesitation. He stood aside to let her pass, eying her curiously as she struggled over the threshold.

Pip paused to survey her surroundings: a snug coatroom with wooden pegs on the walls and shoes arranged in two rows on a little shelf. Above the doorway hung a bouquet of dried flowers. In the air hung the scent of cooked vegetables.

“Your house smells nice,” Pip said.

“I'm making dinner,” said Charles.

“Who for, your girlfriend?”

The corner of his mouth quirked. Pip had never seen someone pack so much self-deprecation into such a subtle expression.

“No,” he said. “Listen, Pip, I don't mean to be unpleasant, but I usually try to keep my work and home life sep-”

Wham. Charles winced as the vacuum cleaner came down hard on the beige tile floor. Having thus freed her hands, Pip reached under her sweater and began unpinning her recording device. She nodded at Charles to continue.

“I try to keep my work and home life separate,” he repeated. “So if this is something that can wait until tomorrow-”

“It isn't,” Pip said. She tore out the last pin and raised the tape recorder. “Listen.”

****

Half an hour later, Pip turned the tape recorder off.

Charles was staring at her, open-mouthed.

Though reliving the day's events had left her dazed and clammy, Pip managed a smile. “Wild stuff, huh?”

Charles closed his mouth and made a visible effort to compose himself.

“Pip,” he said, gently. “I'm going to ask you once: is this-” He gestured back and forth between the two of them. “-some kind of con?”

“What?” said Pip, bristling. “No!”

“Because I'm willing to walk away and forget this ever happened. I won't yell at you or sue you or cast aspersions on air. If this is a joke that's gotten out of hand-”

“It's not a joke.”

“-I don't pretend I'll understand, but I'll be as sympathetic as I can. We can let the matter drop.”

“Charlie,” Pip cried, exasperated. “Two things. First, I'm telling the truth. Second, you're being awfully skeptical for someone who believes in the predictive power of dreams.”

Charles took a deep breath.

Held it.

Let it out again.

“I need proof,” he told her.

“Fine.” Pip pointed at the vacuum. “Then help me bust this thing open.”

****

A minute later, Pip was in Charles' bedroom.

I am in Charles' bedroom, she told herself, and her intestines did a soft-shoe shuffle inside her abdomen. This was the room Charles slept in. This was the room he woke in. When he opened his eyes each morning, these were the things he saw: tan walls, wooden dressers, a framed photograph of a family at the park, stacks of books on history and literature and famous political scandals, a laptop computer, a model zeppelin. (He'd stuffed the latter in his closet when they'd entered the room, but not before Pip had seen it.) This was what he smelled: dust and fabric softener and sleep-warmed skin. It was almost unbearably personal. Pip felt overwhelmed.

Until, that is, Charles began hitting the vacuum with a hammer.

“We couldn't have done this downstairs?” Pip asked as he banged away, striking the door on the underside of the machine as per her instructions.

“I've got...” Charles said, and punctuated the words with a BANG from his hammer. “People...” BANG. “Coming over.” BANG. “The less they see...” BANG. “The fewer questions they ask...” BANG BANG. “The better.” He paused to wipe the sweat from his brow. “Christ. This is a really well-made vacuum.”

“Guess that's why it costs two-thousand dollars and your first-born son.” There was a noise downstairs. Pip listened with a frown. “The front door. Would that be those people you mentioned?”

Charlie!” a woman's voice hollered. “What's this you've got burning in the oven?

“Damn,” Charles said, tossing his hammer onto the dresser. “I forgot about the casserole.” He took two quick strides toward the bedroom door, then looked over his shoulder at Pip. “Stay here. I'll be right back.”

He left the room.

Pip did as instructed for a grand total of twenty-four seconds. That was as long as it took for her to get bored.

At the end of that span, she tiptoed out of Charles' room and went to the top of the stairs. Charles stood in the living room below, his head turned to face an unseen female companion.

“I can't believe this,” the woman was saying. Her tone was dismayed, but with a touch of good humor. “I don't ask for much, darling. Dinner twice a week—nothing fancy, just as long as I don't have to cook. And you go and burn it to cinders. You've got one job, Charlie.”

“I think you'll find that I have more than one,” Charles said. “There's also that silly radio thing I do every now and again. It's nothing much; just my livelihood.”

Pip began to creep downstairs one step at a time.

“Don't get petulant, dear,” the unseen woman said. “It makes your worry lines stand out.”

Step by step, Pip crept. She was only a few feet above Charles now.

“What was all that noise when we came in?” the woman asked. “Sounded like you had an entire football team banging about upstairs.”

Pip chose that moment to stand and reveal herself. Poking her head around the wall separating the stairwell from the living room, she waved and said: “Hi there!”

A middle-aged woman with wavy gray hair and and a pink pashmina gaped at her in alarm. Pip had expected this, or something like it. What she hadn't expected was the stooped old man standing next to the woman, his gnarled features a portrait of disbelief.

Pip decided to power through the introductions. “Sorry to intrude on your dinner,” she said. “I'm a friend of Charlie's. I was in the neighborhood, and I thought he might, erm, help me with something.”

“Oh?” said the old man. A suggestive smirk spread across his face.

The woman coughed and gave Charles a knowing look.

Realizing they'd gotten the wrong impression, Pip summoned up enough modesty to feel embarrassed. The blush on her cheeks, however, was nothing compared to the one Charles was sporting. His face had gone the color of an overripe grape.

“Mum, Grandpa,” he said in a strained voice. “This is Penelope Packard.”

“Nice,” the old man said. He winked at the middle-aged woman. “'Banging about.' Apt choice of words, Susan.”