Saturday, January 3, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 22)

Warning: Strong Language

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had deepened her relationship with Charles by taking him to bed. Now, the two of them plus Duncan venture to the vacant lot by moonlight to discover the secret that Eddie only hinted at and get shot at for their troubles.

In the end, Charles went because Pip went. He'd made various protests: it was technically trespassing, and there was no point now that there was no story, and anyway, maybe the whole "vacant lot" scenario had been a figment of Eddie's disintegrating mind--a cascade of misfiring synapses flowing over fragmentary memories of a dozen conspiracy films. Pip was dismayed that he had come over to Duncan's way of thinking.

"This is about satisfying our curiosity," she argued. "Don't you want to see this to the end? I mean, we've come this far."

She could tell that Charles was burned out. Any curiosity he had was outbalanced by sheer exhaustion. He was ready to be done with the whole thing. And yet, the recent change in their relationship left him unable to deny her. With a sigh that trundled down the telephone line like a heavily medicated elephant, he agreed to meet her at the lot at 10 pm.

He appeared at the promised hour newly shaven and washed, wearing a black button-up shirt with no tie, which was practically casual for him. Pip and Duncan, meanwhile, had dressed themselves like a pair of cat burglars. Duncan had even drawn camouflage splotches on his face with one of Pip's eye pencils. In response to Charles' mumbled greeting, he demanded: "How the hell can you see me?"

Charles ignored the question. "I parked down the block," he said. "Have you scouted the place out? Are there any CCTV cameras, or anything like that?"

"There's a guard dog," Pip said, pointing at a nearby fence. Across the decaying wooden slats, an enterprising someone had spray-painted: GAURD DOG.

"Or rather, a gah-oord dog," said Duncan. "No cameras though, as far as we can tell. Or people. The place seems pretty well abandoned."

And so it did. Moor Road was little more than a dirt trail cutting away from Martell Avenue--former ribbon of interstate commerce, now another Rust Belt wasteland with too much pavement for not enough cars. The Avenue was lined with transitory shops peddling radio parts and pay-day advances. Moor Road, meanwhile, boasted little more than a disused tire factory and an abandoned farm. The crusty silos of the latter were fronted by a double-wide trailer, painted purple, which suggested that somebody lived on the property. But when Duncan ventured to knock on the front door, nobody answered. The investigators, it seemed, were alone.

"Let's have a look at this vacant lot, then," said Pip. She led the way as the three of them slunk around the side of the trailer and crossed a field where nothing grew but weeds. As they left the field, the silos loomed on either side of them like massive cylindrical sentinels. Pip remembered a story her mother had told her about a boy who jumped into the top of a silo, sank to the bottom, and suffocated in thousands of pounds of corn. Pip's mother had known him, had even accompanied him to a junior high school dance. Just thinking about the incident left Pip struggling for breath.

"Van!" Charles hissed, throwing his back against one of the silos and pulling Pip against him. Duncan dove into the shadows alongside them as a white van rolled across the very lot they'd come to see.

A Kerry van, Pip realized.

"Oh my God!" she whispered.

Charles shushed her.

Duncan tapped his companions' shoulders to get their attention. He made a series of comically convoluted hand gestures.

"Why didn't you go before we left?" Pip asked.

Duncan shook his head and gestured some more.

"We're out of Hot Pockets," Pip said. "And now really isn't the time to discuss it."

"God damn it," Duncan groaned. "There's a wooded area over there." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder and a little copse bordering the lot's north end. "If we hug the side of the silo and slip into the trees, we can watch undetected."

"Oh," said Pip.

They followed Duncan's plan to the letter, and soon they were crouching amid adolescent birch trees twenty yards from where the Kerry van had come to a halt. The driver's door opened, and out stepped Larry Guyde, resplendent in a brown Carhart jacket and cowboy boots.

"Big surprise," Pip murmured, then choked on a sharp intake of breath. Because what came next was a surprise.

One of the van's back doors opened, and out came Andrea and Ron.

"Oh my-!" Pip exclaimed, before Charles clapped a hand over her mouth.

Andrea and Ron wore their work clothes. They had obviously come straight from the office. By the light of the half-moon, Pip was able to make out the expressions on their faces. They looked bored.

"Where are they?" Andrea demanded in her shrill voice.

Larry responded with an indecipherable admonishment, tapping his watch as if to say that it was still early. Ron crawled back into the van and returned carrying a six-pack of hard cider. The three of them drank and chatted, casting occasional glances at the night sky.

"I don't believe it," Pip said once Charles removed his hand.

The look Duncan shot her said: "Oh, don't you?" and Pip had to admit that maybe she did believe it. Maybe it was exactly what she had expected.

The wind picked up. Ron and Andrea fidgeted in apparent anticipation. As Larry polished off his beer and lit a cigarette, the wind rose still further, and the air began to thrum. The barometric pressure oscillated wildly, creating in Pip's inner ear the sense impression of whirring helicopter blades. Her face twisted into a grimace as dark clouds rushed across the sky.

No. Not clouds. A shape.

No. Not a shape. A ship.

It was a smallish vessel--smaller than they usually were in movies, anyway--a rectangular prism without any windows or exterior markings of any kind. Its surface was highly reflective and mirrored the night sky so as to render the ship invisible until it dipped below the horizon.

And it did dip below the horizon: quickly and silently, landing with little more than a flurry of winds and a scarcely audible whump. Pip's mouth went dry. At some point, she had grabbed Charles' hand, and his fingers were cold against her palm.

"Christ," Charles whispered.

Larry tossed his cigarette to the ground and stomped on it. Then he gestured to Ron and Andrea, who hastened to open the back hatch of the van. Larry approached the ship at the side facing away from the investigators. Pip heard him conversing with someone.

"We need to get closer," Duncan said.

Pip and Charles agreed--the former immediately, the latter reluctantly. Somehow, it was decided that Duncan should remain in the grove while Pip and Charles doubled back around the silos. From there, Charles would find cover in the decrepit barn on the south side of the lot, while Pip crept down the center of the lot on her belly. Charles wasn't happy about her leaving herself so exposed, but Pip silenced his concerns with a flash of the knife in her pocket and a quick kiss.

("Could you not?" Duncan said, looking ill.)

She kissed him again when they parted midway between the two silos. Dropping to the ground, she began to army crawl through the coarse grass. Her elbows ached where they made contact with pebbles and ropey roots. She squirmed as soil found its way under the waistband of her jeans. It was slow going, made especially so by her attempts to stay in the shadow of the silo. Finally, she was forced to abandon this safe haven and struggle into the moonlight, with only the tall grass to conceal her transition.

"This one's heavy!"

Ron's voice reached her from across the lot. She was close enough to hear everything now, provided she strained a little.

"You don't have to carry him, you stupid ass," Larry said, whirling about and storming over to the van. From her vantage point, Pip still couldn't see whom he'd been talking to. She could, however, see a pale green light spilling across the lot, as if a door had opened in the side of the ship. She crawled sideways a few paces to try to get a better look, but it was no good. If she moved too far south, the van blocked her line of sight.

"He doesn't seem like he can walk," Andrea said. "The meds must have hit him really hard."

"Which is weird, considering he's a big fat guy," said Ron.

Larry gave a tremendous grunt, and then he, Andrea and Ron came around the side of the van with a dark, portly gentleman in tow. They dragged the man over to the open door of the ship, then returned to the back hatch of the van. This time, when they reappeared, they were guiding an elderly woman in a housecoat and slippers. She, too, was led to the door of the ship.

There were five minutes of quiescence. Then, something truly bizarre happened.

The Kerry crew led the same man and elderly woman back to the van--only now the captives were naked. They looked healthier, too. Robust. Walking fully upright. Pip squinted in disbelief.

"What the hell?" she murmured.

Suddenly, a violent clanging split the night air. It came from the barn. Pip's heart leapt into her throat as Larry withdrew a pistol and began creeping toward Charles' hiding place. Without thinking, she jumped to her feet.

"Hey!" she shouted. "Over here, you horse's ass! Hey!"

Larry jumped and spun on his heel. A second later, he was charging toward her with his pistol leveled at her head.

"Shit," she said, and started to run.

Larry was slow, but his bullets were not. They tore at the earth, sending up flumes of dirt at Pip's heels. She shrieked in terror. She'd lived in the bad part of Martell for three years, but this was the first time anyone had shot at her.

"Yo, Larry!" Duncan's voice called from the grove of trees. "I've got you on camera! Smile!"

It was a lie, but it brought Larry up short. There was a lull while he tried to decide which of the Packards to pursue. It only lasted a moment, but it gave Pip enough time to make her escape. She ran at a full sprint, muscles screaming and chest heaving, until she reached Charles' car. Charles arrived at the same spot a second later.

"Where's Duncan?" he asked.

"I don't know!" Pip cried. Only adrenaline kept the tears from her eyes.

Charles unlocked his blue Civic and they threw themselves inside. He started up the car and barreled down Moor Road. The abandoned farm slipped past without any sign of Duncan. The road dead-ended, and rather than waste time turning around, Charles threw the car into reverse. They hurtled back toward Martell Avenue. This time, they were lucky. Duncan stood in the middle of the road, waving his hands. Charles stomped on the brakes.

"Get in!" Pip screamed, even as her brother did exactly that.

Duncan hadn't even finished closing the door behind him when Charles floored it again. The car screeched as he backed onto Martell, shuddered as he popped it into drive, and roared as he pushed the gas pedal to the floor. Seconds later, Moor Road was nothing more than a speck in the rear view mirror.

"What the hell happened?" Pip cried, looking at Duncan through a haze of tears.

Duncan shrugged. "He didn't get me."

"I tripped over a shovel," Charles said, "and it fell off the wall. I'm so sorry."

"Don't worry about it," said Duncan with another shrug. "No harm, no foul."

His cavalier attitude bothered Pip, but it wasn't out of keeping with Duncan's personality. Anyway, at least he was unscathed. She couldn't say the same for herself--she felt thoroughly traumatized. And more confused than ever.