Saturday, January 10, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 23)

Warning: Strong Language, Mature Themes, Graphic Violence

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip, along with Charles and Duncan, had ventured to the vacant lot by moonlight to discover the secret that Eddie hinted at and gotten shot at for her troubles. Now, following an unproductive debriefing, horrific tragedy strikes.

"Okay," said Pip. "So. Is anyone else thinking the 'U' word, or is it just me?"

"The 'U' word?" said Charles.

"UFO." Pip cast a somber look at her companions. She was serious. She wanted them to know that. "The thing that came out of the sky. That was a UFO, right? Not a weather balloon. Not a Russian satellite."

Charles sighed and ran a hand through his hair. The internal struggle between belief and perception was writ large across his face. "I don't know," he said.

"You do know," said Pip. She struck Duncan's sofa with a fist. "You do know, Charlie. You just don't want to say the word."

"What word?"

"The 'U' word."

"Urine?" Steven's voice piped up from the kitchen. He wasn't an official part of the debriefing, but there was no avoiding his presence. He lived here, after all.

"UFO!" Pip cried.

Charles sighed again. "I don't know." He looked at Pip's brother. "What do you think, Duncan? You've been awfully quiet."

He really had been. Uncharacteristically so. Instead of butting in with an inappropriate comment every third sentence, Duncan sat on a stool next to the TV and didn't say a word. His eyes were strange: glazed and distant. It looked less like trauma and more like drug use. Pip didn't like it.

"Duncan, speak up," she ordered. "What do you think?"

Duncan's eyes swiveled in her direction but remained unfocused. "I dunno," he said with a shrug. "Whatever you guys think, I guess."

"I think it was a UFO," Pip said.

Duncan's expression was unchanged. "Whatever you think."

Pip gave Charles a confused look. She turned back to Duncan and said: "I think your mom is fat."

"Whatever you think."

"I think you have no friends."

"Whatever you think."

"I think I'm going to tear Charlie's clothes off and have him right here on your sofa."

"Pip!" cried Charles, while an inarticulate choking sounded from the kitchen.

Pip smirked. If there was one thing Duncan had demonstrated recently, it was that he hated the idea of his sister shacking up with his boss. Any insinuation to that effect was sure to elicit a reaction.

Except it didn't.

"Whatever you think," Duncan said.

Now Pip was really worried. She looked at Charles again, desperate for comfort or advice, but he had none to give. Instead, he made a show of looking at his watch and said: "It's late. Maybe we ought to call it a night."

"Okay," said Duncan. "Good night."

But he didn't move. He only stared at the blank wall behind the sofa. Pip had never met a lobotomy patient, but she was willing to bet they'd have a lot in common with Duncan in his current state. She shuddered.

"Don't go home, Charlie," she said. "Stay here, all right?"

Charles hesitated. "Where would I sleep?"

"On the pull-out sofa with me."

"You two aren't sharing a bed in my apartment!" Steven exclaimed.

"Shut up, Steven," said Pip.

Preparations were made. Faces were washed. Clothes were doffed and pajamas donned. Duncan performed these functions only with liberal prompting from his older sister, who was relieved to shut the door on him when he was finally nestled in bed.

"He's in shock," Charles said, giving her shoulder a comforting squeeze. "He just needs to sleep it off. He'll be better in the morning."

"Yeah," said Pip. "You're probably right."

Logically, he probably was. But it didn't feel that way.

****

"I had another dream," Charles said.

"Hm?" Pip groaned. It was two in the morning, and she had only just started to drift off. The pull-out mattress squeaked as she rolled over to face Charles. "What kind of dream?"

"A bad one," Charles said. His anxious face was limned in moonlight. "A vacuum cleaner ate you. Swallowed you up. One second you were there, the next--om nom--you disappeared into the machine. I took the whole thing apart, but I couldn't find you. You were gone forever."

Pip snorted. "Charlie, you know it doesn't mean anything, right? Prophetic dreams are bullshit."

"As opposed to UFO's," Charles said, "which are totally real."

Pip had to concede the point. She was too tired to keep debating. "Just go to sleep, kid," she murmured, and rolled back to her side of the mattress.

As far as she knew, Charles did.

****

The next morning, Duncan had vanished.

Pip was beside herself. "His wallet is still here," she told Charles in a panic. "So are his studio keys. He can't have gone into work--he can't have gone anywhere without his bus pass. Where the hell is he?"

"Maybe he went for a walk," Charles said.

"With no shoes on?" Pip gestured at the pair of sneakers by the front door. Without waiting for a response--which would have been inadequate anyway--she pulled out her cell phone and dialed her brother's number. Something jumped and buzzed on the kitchen table. "Damn it!" Pip ended the call and threw her cell to the floor. "He left his phone too. What is going on?"

"Let's just wait a while," Charles soothed. "He might come back."

So they waited a while. More than a while, to Pip's impatient way of thinking. An eternity. They sat on the folded-up sofa and watched the morning news--fascinating pieces on prom dresses, chicken recipes, and a janitor who could dunk twenty basketballs in under a minute--and waited. And waited.

And waited.

After two hours, Pip had had enough. "I'm going to the police station," she announced, jumping to her feet.

Charles looked alarmed. "Why?"

"To file a missing persons report."

"He has to be missing at least twenty-four hours before you do that."

Pip threw up her hands in frustration. "But Charlie, you saw how he was acting last night! There's something seriously wrong with him."

"Granted, but there's not much we can do. Young men go missing all the time in the city. Usually they wind up at a friend's place, or a meth house, or the middle of the expressway with a broken alternator and a dead cell phone. There's all kinds of reasons a twenty-year-old boy might vanish. We aren't going to be able to light a fire under the police without compelling evidence that something is drastically amiss."

"For Christ's sake!" Pip sank back onto the couch and buried her face in her hands. "This is unbelievable."

Charles wrapped an arm around her shoulders, drawing her close. They sat like that for several minutes: Pip groaning, Charles stroking her back, the TV droning incessantly about thunderstorm warnings and new speed bumps.

"Are you hungry?" Charles finally asked.

"A little," Pip admitted. "But there's nothing to eat in the apartment. Unless you want microwave taquitos or week-old pizza."

"I think we can do better than that." Charles smiled. "Let me take you out."

****

Pip was too stressed to put more than a cursory effort into her appearance. She filled the bathtub with just enough water to rinse the most important parts, slipped into a loose woolen sweater dress, and took a shot of mouthwash. Charles was little better. He brushed his teeth, applied a fresh layer of deodorant, and changed into his clothes from the day before. The two of them met by the front door less than ten minutes later.

"Ready?" asked Charles.

"Ready," said Pip.

They opened the door and stepped into the hallway. Where they ran smack into Duncan.

"Christ!" Pip gasped, her heart rate leaping. "Duncan! What the hell are you doing out here? We've been worried sick."

Duncan made no reply. He looked awful. His face was blanched and drawn. Dark shapes were etched beneath his eyes, under his cheekbones, in the hollow of his throat. His forehead was beaded with sweat, and his pulse was fluttering: the irregular passing of blood through his carotid artery were visible to the naked eye. Worst of all, his body--formerly so lithe, so balanced, so effortlessly athletic--had become a disjointed patchwork. The bridge of his nose had come unfused. His arms exited his trunk at different heights. His right leg was twisted ninety degrees from hip to ankle.

He leaned against the wall, unable to support himself. His breath came in wet, shallow rasps.

"Don't feel good," he said.

A jet of ice water shot through Pip's innards. "Duncan," she said, "what's wrong?"

"No good," he moaned. "Body's no good. Body's not here. Body's in the vacuum. Best quality vacuum on the market, buy today, financing available."

Pip's mind refused to accept what she was hearing. No, she thought. No.

Duncan coughed. Blood-tinged sputum shot from his mouth and landed at his sister's feet. "Dust mites are microscopic organisms that feed on organic detritus," he said. "A major cause of allergies and asthma. Air quality matters. Hepa filtration system. Brrm brrm brrm."

"Duncan, stop it." Tears stung Pip's eyes. "This isn't funny."

A bloody seam opened along Duncan's hairline. Others formed at his elbows, around his eyes, and at the base of his neck. He seemed not to notice. "Pet dander," he said. "Food debris. Fecal matter. Skin cells. Outdoor pollutants. Dried mucus. Dried sweat. Nail clippings. Loose hairs." His face twisted into an agonized grimace. "This isn't right. This isn't me. I'm in the vacuum. Get me out! Help me!" The seams widened. Blood cascaded down his body.

"Duncan, please-!" Pip cried. She reached for his hand.

Just as their fingers met, Duncan's body disintegrated. The upper part of his head slid forward, while the lower portion and most of his neck tumbled backward. His arms and legs dropped off and wriggled to the floor. His torso split down the center, sending fluids and entrails spilling down the hallway. Pip screamed as her legs were painted with a thick layer of gore.

"Fucking hell!" Charles shouted, pulling Pip out of the way a second too late.

The noises were obscene. Splats. Squishes. Viscous splooshing. The creak of bones and the tearing of connective tissue. It was a terrible cacophony, followed by a silence more terrible still.

It was several moments before the truth registered. When it did, Pip burst into hysterical sobs.

"Oh god!" she wailed. "No. No, no, no. Oh god, Charlie, what's happening? What just-? Oh god. Oh Christ-!"

Charles wrapped his arms around her and held her tight as she bawled and shrieked into his shoulder. Doors opened around them--other residents peeked out of their apartments to see what the commotion was about. Neither Pip nor Duncan noticed. Their entire mental landscape was occupied by the horror they had just witnessed, and the dreadful reality that came along with it:

Duncan was dead.