Saturday, December 6, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 18)

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, she'd moved in with Duncan and shared vital information with Charles. Now, she struggles to set up an interview between Charles and Eddie. Meanwhile, Ron conducts a smear campaign aimed at destroying her reputation.

Things moved quickly after that.

Having obtained enough evidence to form the basic outline of a story, Charles set about filling in the blanks. He wheedled the identity of Pip's deceased neighbor out of the complex's leasing agent. Then he drove Pip out to Francia to locate the house where she'd found the dead body, afterward combing through property records to determine who owned it. He ended up with two names: Sandra Watts and Masha Bogolomov. Additional research unearthed their next-of-kin, who were only too eager to talk. Pip, it seemed, wasn't the only one who smelled a cover-up.

“Sandra was murdered,” her father said. “I don't care what the Argus says. And I don't care what the police say. If they did their duty and investigated properly, they'd see that it had to be murder. But they're not interested in that. They're sitting around with their thumbs up their collective asses.”

“I think it was poison,” said Masha's brother, Filip. “Some kind of neurotoxin. She was sick for a long time before she went. I'd call her up, and she wouldn't make any sense. I'd ask her, 'Masha, what's wrong?' and she'd start crying. Always the tears with her, toward the end. And the sound effects. 'BRRM BRRM BRRM.'”

Charles told them he wanted to take another look at the deaths of their loved ones, but that he needed copies of the coroner's reports to do it. Both agreed to grant him written permission.

“One more question,” Charles said at the end of each conversation. “A bit of an incidental thing, really. Towards the end of her life, did she purchase a vacuum cleaner from the Kerry company?”

Sandra's father answered in the affirmative. He'd wanted to kill her for spending so much money on an appliance.

Filip wasn't sure, but noted that Masha had become generally fixated on vacuum cleaners in her final months. “Always she talked about them, how they sucked everything up, how they stole her memories, how they had magical lights inside them that burned when you touched them.” He sighed. “She didn't want to see a doctor, and I didn't push. I thought they might lock her up.”

Charles thanked them for their cooperation and hung up the phone.

“We're off to a good start,” he told Pip. “But the coroner's reports aren't the most important thing.”

“What's the most important thing?” Pip asked, though she had a fairly good idea.

“An interview with Eddie,” said Charles.

He gave Pip a look. Pip knew what the look meant. Contacting Eddie and arranging an interview had become her responsibility. It was a difficult one to fulfill: when she called the Kerry branch office and asked to speak to Eddie, the secretary not only denied that he was there, but demanded to know what Pip wanted with him. Eddie owned a cell phone, but Pip didn't have the number. The only person she could get it from was Ron.

She didn't relish the thought of asking her boyfriend (ex-boyfriend? mortal enemy?) for a favor. Especially since he had recently launched a telephonic smear campaign against her.

“Ron called me,” Duncan announced one evening, three days after Pip had moved in with him. “He told me you were dangerously manic and asked for my help in having you committed.”

“He called me, too,” said Steven, blushing magenta. “He said you'd been molested as a child and were incapable of forming lasting social bonds. He said you might try to manipulate me into a sexual relationship so that you could take my money and permanently cripple my sense of self.”

“Is everything all right, honey?” Pip's mother asked during their weekly Skype chat. “I just spoke to Ron on the phone, and he said you attacked your friends with a hammer. Did you stop taking your medication? Ron thinks the withdrawal is undermining your grip on reality.”

“For Christ's sake!” Pip shouted. “You don't become psychotic from Ritalin withdrawal!”

She had known that Ron wouldn't take the break-up well. She'd anticipated yelling, crying, and abusive emails—the usual repertoire of the abusive ex. What she hadn't expected was a calculated attempt to destroy her reputation. Fortunately, few among her friends and family thought highly of Ron or put stock in anything he said. Unfortunately, he was relentless. Pip couldn't go a single day without someone contacting her to ask if she'd really stripped naked and burned all of her worldly possessions beneath the light of the full moon.

To distract herself from the ongoing persecution, Pip did the unthinkable: she began attending classes regularly. Never before in her college career had she sat through more than half the lectures for a given course. It was more her style to read the textbook and wait until the final to make an appearance. Now she was spending up to eight hours a day on campus. And her classmates noticed.

“Are you a transfer student?” asked a tall girl in Pip's Plate Tectonics mini-course. “I've never seen you here before.”

“You're still in this class?” said a boy named Bryan in her Primatology lab. “I thought you went to prison or something.”

“Hey, stranger,” said Virginia during Micorbiology. “We're having another party a few weeks from now. It's my birthday this time.” She flashed an engaging smile. “Wanna come?”

“I might,” Pip said, and she actually meant it. Truly, her life was taking some unexpected turns.

There was an uptick in her work attendance, as well. To compensate for all the money she'd been spending on gas, and to make good on her promise to pay a third of the rent on Duncan's apartment, she even went so far as to request extra shifts. There was an added benefit to this: shelving books was just mind-numbing enough to soothe her, and just painstaking enough to divert her thoughts from other, less pleasant matters.

At least, it would have been, had Charles not insisted on calling her five times a day.

“This is urgent, Pip,” he said one night a week after Pip had left her apartment. “I at least need contact information for Eddie. His last name, his address, his cell number—something.”

“I know,” Pip sighed. “All right. I'll get in touch with Ron.”

And get in touch with Ron she did. He was surprisingly cordial over the phone. When she asked for a favor, he seemed only too happy to oblige. He wasn't angry with her, he said. In fact, he felt he should apologize for his recent behavior. He'd been lashing out because he was hurt. Surely she could understand that.

“I understand,” said Pip, though she didn't really.

Ron told her to come over after work. Pip agreed and hung up the phone.

Straightforward enough, she thought. But deep down, she knew that couldn't be the end of it. Somehow, before this was over, the other shoe would drop.

****

She arrived at her former residence at 9:30 that evening. The first thing she noticed upon entering was the noxious haze of body odor and powdered ramen that hung in the air. The second thing she noticed was the group of five people gathered in the living room.

“Sit down, Pip,” Ron said, gesturing at an empty chair in front of the TV.

“What is this?” Pip asked. She looked warily at the sea of faces before her. Pete was sitting on the sofa, as were Josh and Adam. Preston had draped himself over a beanbag chair and was engaged in what looked like a slap fight with the cat. The cat was winning.

“You know what this is,” Ron told her, in a placating tone. “An intervention. Go on.” He gestured at the chair. “Sit down.”