Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 20)

Warning: Strong Language, Mature Themes

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, she'd suffered through an inept intervention, stolen a cell phone, and stumbled across the bloody remnants of her informant. Now, overcome with the horror of her situation, she gets drunk. Charles does the same. Indiscretions ensue.

"This isn't over," Charles told her, his features assuming a suspiciously hopeless cast. "I've got other sources. Other avenues I can explore. We can still make this story work."

Pip nodded, though in truth she was no longer thinking about the story. Her mind was troubled. Something about the blood slurry on the sofa had driven home just how horrific her life had become.

She didn't hear from Charles for a week. Nor did she sleep. She lay in Duncan's living room and tried to ignore the scenes of carnage that had tattooed themselves on the back of her eyelids. She saw Sandra Watts and Masha Bogolomov. She saw Eddie. She wondered how many others had died, and why, and how many people at Kerry knew.

Did Ron know? Had she slept with a murderer? How could one even begin to atone for something that hideous?

Pip once again began to skip class. She called in sick to work. When she left the apartment and caught a bus to Virginia's party, it was the first time she'd bestirred herself in a week, and she had only done so because she knew there would be alcohol involved. Suddenly, the opportunity to get drunk was the most appealing thing in the world.
****

"What are you having?" Virginia asked, nearly shouting over the din of the bar's overhead speakers.

"Riesling," Pip answered. Not because she liked Riesling, but because it seemed like something that someone might drink.

Virginia's eyebrows shot up. "Wine? Well, aren't you fancy?"

The other partygoers chuckled. Pip forced a laugh. She hadn't meant to seem fancy. She'd meant to seem experienced.

The waiter brought her a Riesling, and she downed it, wracking her brain all the while for a more appropriate drink to order in the next round. She wound up asking for a Tequila Sunrise.

Then a Sex on the Beach.

Then a glassh of vodka, pleash.

Then a piyacolaha wiv one'a them little thingamajigsh like a little uh'brella an' a cherry wiv a sword innit.

By the time Pip ordered a "Slut-Headed Red, I mean a Red-Slutted Head, I mean a whazzit called, that slutty one?", Virginia had begun to look concerned.

"Have you drunk before, Pip?" she asked.

In response, Pip flung her arms around Virginia's neck and hollered: "HABBY BIRVDAY!"

Perhaps drawn by the siren call of a woman too drunk to feel threatened, a pair of college boys sauntered up to Pip and Virginia's table. Pip greeted them warmly and invited them to sit down. Virginia looked displeased.

****

"I'm photosensitive," one of the college boys told Pip an hour later.

Pip wasn't sure if she'd forgotten the context of this comment, or if there hadn't been any to begin with. She'd been listening to the boy speak for quite some time, but nothing was really sticking. She was distracted by the thump of the bar's subwoofer and the neon smudge of its lighting.

"That means I'm basically allergic to the sun," the boy clarified. "Also, I have really sharp canines." He opened his mouth to show Pip the canines in question. "My friends joke that I'm a vampire. That's why everyone calls me Shadow."

"Dude," the other boy cut in. "No one in the history of ever has called you Shadow."

Shadow growled defensively. "My grandpa called me Shadow one time."

"Your grandpa has Alzheimer's!"

The two began to fight. It was at that moment that Pip's stomach decided to exit her body through her throat. She clapped a hand over her mouth.

"Oh God," Virginia said, her eyes widening. "Go. Go now."

Pip ran to the bathroom and turned herself inside-out. When she was finished, her cell phone rang. She saw Charles' name flash across the screen and hit ANSWER.

"Charlie?" she said.

"No, this is his mother," said the voice on the other end of the line. "Have I reached Penelope Packard?"

Pip confirmed that she had.

"Listen, love, I know this is strange," Mrs. Shreve continued, "but do you think you could come over? I'm worried about Charlie. He hasn't left his room in two days."

What do you expect me to do about it? Pip might have asked, had she been sober. But she wasn't sober, and she didn't ask. Instead, she left the bar and boarded a bus for South Pyle.

****

"He gets like this sometimes," Charles' mother explained as she led Pip up the stairs. "His father did, too. Of course, in Bill's case, it wound up killing him."

Susan Shreve's face was pale and drawn. Despite her outward composure, she was obviously worried sick. Pip felt guilty for coming to her aid stinking drunk.

Susan tapped on Charles' bedroom door. "Charlie?" she said. "Baby? Someone's here to see you."

There was a long pause. "Ask them to come back tomorrow," Charles called at last. He used the overly crisp diction of the more experienced drunk, and his native accent was back in full force.

"Charlie, it's Pip," said Pip. "Let me in, okay? I've got news about the case."

There was another lengthy pause. Then Charles cracked the door open. "Really?" he said.

"No, not really," Pip replied. "I just wanted you to open the door."

She muscled her way past Charles and entered the bedroom. A blast of stale, cranberry-scented air nearly knocked her off her feet. She covered her face and coughed.

"Sorry," said Charles. "I spilled a bottle of rum yesterday."

"I'll leave you alone," Susan said. She shut the door gently and went downstairs.

Pip conducted a more detailed survey of the bedroom. It was tidier than Pete's room at the apartment, but that wasn't saying much. A cast-off suit and dress shirt lay in one corner, while a cluster of empty liquor bottles occupied another. There was a brownish puddle in the center of the carpet, in front of Charles’ bed. No one, as far as Pip could tell, had made any attempt to clean it up.

“Pardon the mess,” Charles said. He was wearing a rumpled blue t-shirt and plaid pajama pants. His thinning hair stuck up in all directions, and there was two-days’ worth of stubble on his jaw. It was a strangely charming look on him. Pip felt something stir in her lower abdomen but did her best to ignore the sensation.

“You haven’t been sleeping,” he observed.

“No,” said Pip. “Nor have you.”

He sighed. “I can’t make it work, Pip. I’ve got autopsy reports and interviews with family members, but the only thing they establish is that these particular deaths were under-investigated. We can’t prove that Sandra and Masha were murdered, because the autopsies were ‘inconclusive.’ Eddie Schulz was reported missing by a former landlord three years ago, but the trail goes cold after that—apparently the ‘real Eddie,’ if that’s the terminology we’re using, didn’t have any family or friends to follow up on his disappearance, and the ‘fake Eddie’ was entirely unknown outside of Kerry. We’ve got nothing on the company, apart from that recording. And really, there’s nothing stopping Larry Guyde from saying it’s a fake.”

“I see,” said Pip.

“I got so desperate a few days ago, I spilled the whole thing to my producer. Surprise, surprise, Padma wants no part of it. She thinks I’m still hung up on the Altair Capital story.” He lowered his head and scrubbed a hand over his face. When he looked up again, his cheeks were red and his eyes were glistening. Pip’s breath froze in her lungs. “And she’s not wrong, that’s the thing,” Charles continued. His lip quivered. He clenched his fists and turned away until he regained control. “I want to know what happened to Sandra and Masha and Eddie, but I also want out of this town. The only way out is to make a name for myself, and the only way to do that is to finish this damn story.”

“I see,” Pip said again.

“I suppose that’s rather selfish.”

Pip shrugged. “Yeah.”

Charles groaned, buried his face in his hands, and sank onto the bed. For several long moments, he said nothing. Only when Pip sat next to him and lay a hand on his shoulder did he break his silence.

“Do you like stout?” he asked.

“I’d be willing to give it a try,” said Pip.

****

Ten minutes later, she was dry heaving.

“God!” she cried. “This is terrible! How do you drink this stuff?”

Charles chuckled. “It’s an acquired taste.”

“What maniac would acquire a taste for this?”

By way of reply, Charles knocked a bottle back in one go.

Pip blanched. “Yech! You’re crazy.”

Lowering the now empty bottle, Charles wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’m not crazy. I’m really, really sad.”

Pip was too drunk to be taken aback by his unwonted candor. Cooing sympathetically, she threw an arm around him and leaned into his side. “Aw, Charlie, you poor thing. I’d be depressed too, if I was as serious as you.”

“It’s got nothing to do with my being serious,” Charles protested. Then, after a moment: “Do you really think I’m serious?”

“You’re the most serious person I ever met.”

“Shit.”

Pip giggled at the unexpected swear. “Don’t worry. You’re still my second favorite British person.”

“Second favorite? Who’s the first?”

“Freddie Mercury.”

“Ah.” Charles reached down and retrieved another bottle of beer. “Well, there’s no competing with Freddie.”

Pip flung herself down on the bed while Charles opened the bottle and drank. The wind was picking up outside, and the bedroom window rattled with each successive gust. Somewhere in the house, a clock chimed ten. Pip took in the symphony, feeling floaty and content like only a first-time drunk can. As she stared up at the ceiling, she noticed an array of glowing pinpricks. Constellations. Someone—a much younger Charles, presumably—had recreated the night sky by sticking glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. This revelation sent such a rush of tenderness through Pip that she seized Charles’ arm and pulled him down beside her.

“Careful!” he yelped, raising the hand with the beer in it to avoid spilling

“Tell me something funny, Charlie,” Pip said.

Charles turned his head to look at her. He was so close. She could count the freckles on his nose. “Something funny?”

“Yeah. We need to laugh.”

Charles thought.

And thought.

And thought some more.

Then he snickered. “Well…”

“Come on,” Pip said, grinning. “Out with it.”

“In England, there’s this politician…”

“Yes?”

“…called Ed Balls.”

Pip stared at Charles. He stared back at her. His mouth twitched once. Twice. Then, rolling onto his side and doubling over, he broke into a fit of giggles. Pip was both amused and bewildered.

“What?” she demanded, giggling despite her confusion. “Why is that funny?”

Charles laughed harder. He rocked back and forth, wracked with spasms of hilarity. “Ed Balls,” he repeated, as tears sprang to his eyes.

Pip grinned. “Charlie!” she scolded. “You can’t laugh about that. That’s totally low-brow!”

Charles continued to laugh nevertheless.

“Honestly!” Pip said. “You’re a respected figure in local journalism. You’re supposed to laugh at like, historical anecdotes, or Moliere plays or something. Not at some guy named-“

“Ed Balls,” Charles cried, helplessly.

Pip had noticed before that laughter coming on the heels of grief was often wholly out of proportion with its trigger. Perhaps it said something about Charles’ mental state that he was laughing so hard at something so scatological. Perhaps it said something about Pip that she was laughing right along with him.

“You’re making it up,” she accused.

“I’m not,” Charles said. “He’s in the Labour Party. He’s the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.”

“That what of the what?”

“I know it sounds weird.”

“It sounds evil! Are we talking about England, or the Galactic Empire?”

Charles practically barked with renewed laughter. He sounded like an extremely ill leopard seal.

“Calm down!” Pip snickered, squeezing his shoulders. “You’re going to give yourself a hernia.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Charles took a deep breath and wiped his eyes. “Was that sufficiently funny?”

“Your reaction was funnier.”

“Yeah, well.” He rolled back toward her. “Perhaps I should leave the silliness to you. You’re much better at it.”

He was closer than ever now—so close that Pip’s eyes were having a hard time bringing his features into focus. Her heart jittered as she realized that his hand was lying on top of hers. When had that happened?

“Are you feeling better?” she asked, cringing at the sudden hoarseness in her voice.

“No,” he said. “But then again, yes. I don’t know. I have a hard time bouncing back when I get in one of my funks. I’m prone to melancholy.”

“Your mom told me as much.”

“I usually keep to myself when I feel like this. It’s not as annoying as I expected, having someone around.”

“I’ve been reliably informed that I’m extremely annoying.”

“You’re extremely persistent.” He squeezed her hand. Whether it was a conscious act or not, Pip couldn’t tell. “And pushy. And impulsive. And…and fearless.”

“I’m not fearless. I get scared all the time.”

“Me too.” He looked her in the eye and swallowed hard. “I’m scared right now.”

“How come?” Pip asked, but she already knew the answer. Fear was creeping up on both of them, and it had nothing to do with the case and everything to do with the frisson shuddering through their clasped palms.

What followed was the loudest silence Pip had ever experienced.

“Pip,” Charles said, softly, “would you be upset if I-“

She didn’t give him a chance to finish. There, amid the sound of the wind, beneath a sea of glow-in-the-dark stars, Pip fisted both of her hands in his T-shirt and pulled him toward her. His mouth opened against hers, and then they were both drowning.