Saturday, November 22, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 16)

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, she had broken things off with her fiance in rather spectacular fashion. Now, she receives an unexpected phone call which promises to blow the whole mystery wide open.

Pip drew in a long breath.

“Who said anything about an investigation?”

“Don't bother, Pip,” said Eddie.

“No, really. What makes you think I'm conducting one?”

Eddie sighed. “My eyes. You're not the first to go undercover at Kerry. I've become attuned to the signs.”

Trying in vain to ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach, Pip shifted her car into reverse and began to maneuver out of the parking lot. When she spoke again, she sounded much steadier than she felt. “The signs, huh?”

“The people who want to work for Kerry have a certain look to them. They're fearful. Downcast. Their lives have been a long succession of crushing failures. Their grades were bad in school, and their self-esteem was worse. Now they're floundering through young adulthood, unable to feed themselves or hold down a decent job. They just want to feel like they're good at something.”

“And Duncan and I didn't look that way.”

“No. Frankly, you weren't half desperate enough.”

Pip hummed doubtfully. In her mind, she was the most desperate person she knew.

“Don't feel bad,” said Eddie, mistaking her noise for one of self-reproach. “I'm sure none of the others noticed. I'm a special case. You see, the first Eddie was a reporter. The real one.”

Pip furrowed her brow. “Are you not the real Eddie?”

“I'm not the real anything.”

There was a lull in the conversation as Pip pulled out onto Demetrios Street. Rush hour had long since passed, but there was still a heavy press of students driving from the university to their off-campus apartments. One of them honked at Pip when she merged in front of him. She made a face at him over her shoulder.

“What are you, then?” she asked Eddie at last.

Instead of answering the question, Eddie asked one of his own: “When you open a vacuum cleaner bag and look at all the stuff inside it, what do you imagine that stuff is?”

“Er...dirt?”

“More specific.”

“I don't know. Mud and...and dust and things.”

“Partly correct. Mud and dust might be mixed in—but actually, that stuff is mostly you. Your hair, your skin cells, tiny flakes from your finger-and-toenails. If you have a pet, of course, it contributes. Otherwise, you are the single dirtiest thing in your home.”

“Yeah, well. You've never met Pete.” Pip squinted at a stoplight, willing it to turn green. She needed to keep moving. Otherwise, the weirdness of the conversation would cause her to combust. “Make your point, if you have one.”

“A Kerry vacuum is an entirely different animal.”

“Yeah, because it's got a swirly vortex thing inside.”

Eddie was silent. This time, it seemed Pip had caught him on the back foot.

“Oh,” she continued. “Maybe I should have mentioned this at the beginning: I broke open one of your vacuums. I saw the black hole, or whatever it was.” She cringed inwardly. It was risky, showing her hand this way. If this were some ham-handed attempt by Eddie to ferret out her true intentions and alert the higher-ups at Kerry, she had just given him exactly what he wanted.

But no. Something about that scenario didn't tally. Eddie sounded too drained. Too resigned. Too...unguarded. If he were trying to trick her into revealing something, he was going about it in a very counter-intuitive fashion.

“You didn't touch it, did you?” Eddie sounded nervous. “The Confluence?”

“Confluence? Is that what it's called? No, I didn't,” Pip said. Then she added: “I put a bike in it, though.”

“Don't ever touch it.”

“What happens if I do?”

“Nothing good.”

“What's it for?”

“It's where the dirt goes.”

“Why would you put dirt in there?”

“I'm not sure you're going to believe me.”

The stoplight finally went green. Pip turned left. Midway through the turn, she realized that she had no idea where she was going. She glanced at her gas gauge and saw that she had less than an eighth of a tank remaining. It would have to be Duncan's place, then. Her mother's was too far.

“I'm willing to believe all sorts of things these days,” she told Eddie. “Why don't you try me?”

Eddie seemed to mull this over for a moment. “I think not,” he said.

Pip huffed in frustration. “Well then what the hell did you call me for?”

“I'm going to die, Pip,” he said without missing a beat. “Soon. I'm quite literally coming apart at the seams.” As if to emphasize this point, he gave a hoarse, barking cough. “My entire life—which hasn't been long, granted—three years or so-” He coughed again. “My entire life has been spent at Kerry. I was born and groomed specifically to be their Positivity Emissary. I ate, slept and breathed that job, because I didn't know anything else. And yet, the second I got sick-” Another cough. “And they knew I was going to get sick. Or at least, they suspected. I mean, after what happened to the others-”

“What others?” Pip interrupted. Her heart pounded at the oblique reference to the mysterious deaths. Here, at last, was something she could grab onto!

But Eddie thwarted her again: “There's no point telling you now. You'll find out in a couple of weeks.”

“Why a couple of weeks?” Pip snapped. “Will you even live that long?” The instant the words left her mouth, she was overcome with horror. “Oh, God. Eddie...I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean-”

“I don't need to live. I just need to give you an address: 1650 Moor Road. The empty lot behind the grain elevator. You go there after midnight, two Saturdays from now, and it'll all come together for you.”

Pip's stomach was still roiling. She couldn't believe her own callousness. She'd been living with Ron for far too long. “Eddie, really...if there's anything I can do for you...”

“You can be at 1650 Moor Road after midnight, two Saturdays from now.” Eddie inhaled sharply. Pip thought she could hear a door creaking in the background. “I have to go.”

“Eddie, wait,” said Pip. “One more thing: why haven't the deaths been reported in the papers?”

Eddie didn't even pretend not to know which deaths she was talking about. “Ah,” he said, “now there's the tidbit that spelled the end for the original Eddie. The publisher of the Argus-”

“George Luegner.”

“Yes. George Luegner.” Eddie snorted as if amused. “He's Larry Guyde's brother-in-law.”

Eddie!” a male voice hollered in the background. “Where are y-

The line went dead.