Sunday, April 5, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 35)

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip, along with the rest of the captives, had been tossed through the Confluence by the surprisingly helpful Nib. Now, she returns to the world she knows--or at least, some version thereof. This is the last installment. Thanks for reading, everyone!

Marjorie Loft just wanted a quiet evening at home. She'd unplugged the TV, taken the phone off the hook, and locked the dog in the bathroom. She'd finished her daily housekeeping in record time--dishes, laundry, toilet. Her arthritic hands still ached from the effort.

It would be worth the pain, she'd thought at the time, to have an hour or two of sedate nothingness at the end of it all. She wouldn't meditate. She wouldn't unwind with a novel. She would simply sit and stare at the wall. It was an activity Marjorie often indulged in, the appeal of which spoke volumes for her deprived childhood. She was looking forward to indulging in it again.

Then she remembered: next week was her nephew's birthday. With a sigh, she fetched her knitting needles.

She didn't know why she bothered making presents for him. It wasn't as if they got along. He was, quite simply, a dreadful child. He punched cats, threw rocks at cars, and called his parents the N-word. Once he'd gotten Marjorie arrested at the mall.

"Help!" he'd squealed, while Marjorie held fast to his wrist and tried desperately to shush him. "I don't know this person! This person is not my mother! Somebody call the police!"

Mall security had shoved Marjorie to the ground and held her there until the cops arrived. Her nephew, meanwhile, had stood to one side cackling. Someone from Jamba Juice, having witnessed the scene and evidently feeling sorry for the "victim," rushed over and gave him a free banana-strawberry smoothie. The boy turned a teary face toward the server and thanked her shakily, only to resume cackling as soon as she was out of earshot. For all Marjorie knew, a free smoothie had been his end game all along.

Marjorie hated her nephew. So as she knitted his birthday scarf, she imagined killing him. With each click of her needles, she pictured driving a knife into his body.

Click.

Stab.

Click.

Stab.

Click.

CRASH.

Wait a minute. That wasn't right.

The knitting needles slid from Marjorie's hands as a very real thump sounded from the closet down the hall. It was followed by an equally real moan.

Closet zombies! Marjorie thought, before realizing that wasn't a thing. Hesitantly, she rose to her feet and crept down the hall. She heard more moaning, intercut by pained sobs.

"Charlie?" a woman's voice called. "Charlie, where are you?"

A chill zig-zagged up Marjorie's back. She didn't recognize the voice, didn't know any Charlie. Was her house haunted? Could this be a ghost? She wondered if she could ask it to come back later, after she'd had her quiet time.

"Charlie!" the voice wailed. It sounded stronger this time. "Charlie, say something. It's dark, and I don't know where I am."

Bumping. Thumping. A clipped yelp as the ghost tripped over Marjorie's bocce rack. Marjorie took hold of the closet doorknob and pulled. An instant later, she shrieked and leapt back.

There on the closet floor sat a young woman. She was panting, bedraggled, and clad only in a long white nightie. Her face was covered with contusions and dotted with broken capillaries. Next to her lay Marjorie's vacuum cleaner, its underside door twisted out of shape and hanging from one screw. Marjorie frowned. She'd owned the Kerry for just two weeks, and now it looked like a pipe bomb had gone off inside it.

"Please," the girl sobbed. Her eyes were wild. She looked concussed. "My boyfriend--my Charles--he's hurt bad, we have to get him to a hospital. Call-" She doubled over and vomited onto the closet floor. "Call an ambulance. Call it n-" She vomited again.

Marjorie did call the ambulance, but not for "Charles." As far as she could tell, there was no Charles. She just wanted the girl to stop puking on her floor.

****

Pip woke in a hospital bed with an I.V. lodged in her arm. Seconds later, a man shone a penlight into her eyes.

"Mmhmm," said the man. "Mmhmm," he said again. "Good," he declared, and tucked the penlight into the front pocket of his white coat. "There's some head trauma, but nothing serious. I don't think she's in danger of falling into a coma."

"Oh, thank God," said a familiar voice. Pip's head throbbed as she turned toward the sound. Her mother sat in a chair next to the bed, her black hair tied up in a hasty ponytail, her brown eyes leaden with worry.

"Mom?" Pip croaked.

Mrs. Packard's face regained some of its usual light. "Baby!" she gasped, leaping to her feet and grabbing Pip's hands. "I'm here. It's okay. You're in the hospital."

"Where's-?"

"Duncan? He's here too. He says you rescued him. Something about aliens?" She shook her head. "He's delirious, but his condition is stable. It's okay, baby." She reached up to stroke Pip's hair. "Everything's going to be okay."

The pounding in Pip's head became a drowsy fog. She didn't want to sleep, but it seemed as if her brain were leaving her no choice in the matter. She forced out one more question before oblivion took her: "Where's Charlie?"

Mrs. Packard's brow furrowed. "Charlie?" she said. "Who's Charlie?"

Pip slept.

****

When she awoke, she saw herself on the news. Her picture flashed across the TV in the corner of her room, alongside other familiar faces: Duncan, Hamza, Eddie, Masha. The headline at the bottom read, "Mysterious Reappearances."

"Most of these people have been declared legally dead," a husky-voiced anchorwoman intoned. "Their families have attended their funerals and, in some cases, seen their remains. So what exactly is going on here? Are they impostors? Is this some kind of convoluted scam? How did they fit themselves inside canister vacuum cleaners, and to what purpose? We'll have more information on this bizarre story as it becomes available."

There was a knock at the door. Pip startled, then relaxed as the door swung open and Duncan stepped into the room. He was pale, hunched, and trailing an I.V. pole. Otherwise, he looked perfectly healthy.

"Hey, buttlord," he said.

Pip started to smile, but the pain caused by the expression forced her to grimace instead. "Hey, assjack. Still alive, I see."

Duncan nodded. "Still alive. Though the doctors are having a hell of a time figuring out what this foreign object is in my chest." He jabbed at his breastplate with his index finger and grinned. "It's kind of funny, actually. One doctor thinks I put it there myself."

"Why would you do that?"

"Dunno. Guess it sounds more plausible than whatever lunacy I was spouting about extraterrestrials when I first woke up."

He hobbled over to Pip's bed and sat down. The I.V. pole creaked and clattered behind him. The siblings lapsed into companionable silence as the anchorwoman droned on about the stock market.

"Where'd you come out?" Duncan asked.

"Hm?" said Pip. "Oh. I don't know. Some old lady's closet. How about you?"

"An office building. I popped out of the vacuum as a custodian was using it to clean a conference room. Poor guy's two rooms down from me, being treated for shock." He gestured to a jagged cut above his left eyebrow. "Fun souvenir, eh?"

Pip fingered her own cuts. They'd been stitched up. She imagined her face must look gruesome. "What are they from? Hitting the inside of the canister?"

"That's what I figured. You look like you got it a lot worse than me."

"Yeah, well. My head's not as thick as yours."

"Piss up a rope."

Pip laughed. A second later, the sound died in her throat.

"Charlie?" she asked.

Duncan shook his head. "Nothing," he said.

They lapsed back into silence.

****

Two days passed, and Pip was awake more often than she was asleep. The doctors saw this as progress and encouraged her to take walks. Pip did so rarely and begrudgingly. Not only was there little to see around the hospital grounds, but she was loathe to leave the television. More information about her fellow captives was arriving by the hour.

"Perhaps the most remarkable member of what reporters are dubbing The Vacuum Gang is Eddie Schulz," the anchorwoman said, "a former freelance journalist who has been missing for three years. Schulz was once known locally as a sensationalist with an eye for the outré. Since his release from the hospital, however, he has refused to speak to the press, opting instead to lock himself in his hotel room."

"The Vacuum Gang's Maria Petrovna Boglomov remains in critical condition at a private hospital in South Martell," she said a few minutes later. "Boglomov was declared dead a few short weeks ago, though her brother has stated that the remains were mangled beyond recognition and that he wasn't positive they belonged to his sister."

"Siblings Penelope and Duncan Packard, the only members of the Vacuum Gang with a family connection, are enjoying a swift recovery, according to trauma specialists at Monroe Martell Medical Center. They should be released within a few days. Penelope is a student at Martell University; her brother is a sound engineer at Martell Public Radio. Interestingly, he is not the only public radio employee embroiled in this mystery. Charles Shreve, host of 'Martell Investigates,' has also been-"

"Ms. Packard?" a nurse grunted, poking his head into Pip's room. "You have a telephone call."

"Just a second!" Pip snapped. Her ears strained for word of Charles. Her body tingled as his picture flashed across the television screen.

"Ms. Packard," the nurse said, more firmly this time. "I can't hold the line. It's supposed to be for appointments and referrals. Using it for personal calls is technically against hospital rules. If you won't take the call, I'll have to disconnect it."

Charles' photo disappeared, giving way to an advertisement for a used car dealer. Whatever bread crumbs the anchorwoman had just tossed out, Pip had missed them. With a despairing groan, she rose to take the call.

****

"Pip?" said the voice on the other end of the line. "This is Susan. Susan Shreve."

Pip's heart jolted. A squirt of adrenaline shot up her midline. "Susan?" she said. "Is everything okay? Where's Charlie? Is he alive? Have you heard from him?"

Susan Shreve made a strange noise. It almost sounded like she was laughing. But that didn't make any sense...

"I have to be brief," she replied. "I've already gotten told off for calling you on this line. Watch the news tonight at six. Channel 4. It's important."

Pip was annoyed. She'd already been planning to watch the 6 p.m. news. What else was there to do in a hospital? Did Mrs. Shreve expect her to be studying Polish or writing a Masters thesis on the tragedy of the commons? "Where's Charlie?" she demanded, a hair more harshly than she intended.

Susan Shreve laughed again. "Just watch the news. And don't worry. Everything's going to be fine. All right?"

It wasn't all right. It wasn't even close to all right. But before Pip could protest, Susan had tossed out a careless "bye!" and hung up the phone.

****

Six o'clock was still four hours away. Pip filled that time by signing forms, speaking with a half-dozen interchangeable specialists, and receiving handfuls of scrips. They were sending her home tomorrow morning, the doctors told her. Pip's mother had agreed to monitor her children for the next few days in exchange for an earlier release. Pip kept one eye on the clock while chattering mindlessly: "Yeah. Okay. That's great. Yeah. Three tablets. Gotcha. Yeah. Thank you. Sounds good."

"Sounds good?" one doctor repeated incredulously. "I've just told you that there's a non-zero chance you'll have permanent brain damage. Ms. Packard, are you listening?"

Pip had to admit that she wasn't. The doctor sighed and started over from the beginning. All the while, the hands of the clock drew closer to 6 p.m.

****

The usual anchorwoman was gone--Pip supposed she had to take a bathroom break sometime--and a trim man with almond eyes and slicked-back hair had taken her place. He began the hour-block by announcing an interview with a very special guest. Pip tried to tamp down the flutter of hope in her belly, but it was a losing battle. Somehow she knew--well, she didn't know so much as think--well, she didn't think so much as feel--

"But first," the anchorman said, "sports."

Pip had never been much of a sports fan, but she had never before felt such a surge of categorical animosity toward physical activity. Who cared about football, or retiring coaches, or decades-old rivalries?

For that matter, who cared about weather? Or changes in bus schedules? Or the old man who could play "El Condor Pasa" on a blade of grass? Who in their right mind had enough excess regard to bestow upon any of those things, with the promise of a VERY SPECIAL GUEST on the horizon? Pip was growing increasingly agitated. It was all she could do to refrain from ripping the television off the wall and hurling it out the window.

"And now," the anchorman said at last, "to our top story."

Pip scooted forward on her bed and held her breath.

"It's the story that's captivated and unnerved a nation: The Vacuum Gang. Four days ago, homes across metropolitan Martell found themselves host to unexpected guests. These guests were wounded, delirious--and crawling out of Kerry-brand vacuum cleaners.

"Many members of the Gang have claimed to be victims of alien abduction. Others have refused to speak of their ordeal, maintaining a stony silence that has only served to heighten public interest. Now, for the first time, one of them has offered to go on the record. We take you now live to an intensive care unit in East Pyle, where Charles Shreve is recovering from his injuries."

Pip screamed.

"Shut up in there!" bellowed the man in the room adjacent to hers, rapping on the wall with his knuckles.

Pip was too relieved to feel chastened. Tears rolled down her cheeks as Charles' face appeared onscreen. He was bruised, stitched, and tethered to more than one I.V. A tube ran down his nose. His green hospital gown bulged at his abdomen, hinting at the mass of bandages concealed there. When he spoke, it was in a fading croak.

"Thank you for having me, Jim."

"Thank your for speaking with us, Charles." The anchorman's voice seemed inappropriately robust by comparison. "You're out of the woods now, but I understand you had a close call."

There was a short delay while the transmission sped its way toward Charles. Then Charles nodded. "Yes, I had three or four transfusions and a brief affair with the defibrillator. I'm still heavily medicated. My apologies if this interview strays into Strawberry Fields at any point."

The anchorman chuckled. "No worries. We're happy to see you alive and well. Can you tell us how you got injured?"

"I lay most of the blame on this guy." Charles held up a glass jar containing a small bit of metal. He shook the jar to make the metal clink. "This was lodged in my abdomen. It was shot from a pistol the make and model of which I defy any gun expert to place. Can you get a close-up of the jar here?"

Slowly, the camera zoomed in. The lump of metal resolved itself into an inch-long bolt, flat on both ends, with distinctive ridging on its sides. It was copper in color, with an underlying hint of red.

"Does that look like any bullet you've ever seen?" Charles asked.

"I'm not a gun expert," the anchorman said, "but no, it doesn't. Would you mind telling us where it came from?"

So Charles told them.

He told them about everything: Kerry vacuums, the farm on Moor Road, the Dredmillon, Lirma'nib, George Lugner, the Confluence. He omitted no detail. He even suggested scientists study the device in Duncan Packard's chest--he was confident they would find it to be of extra-planetary construction. He spoke, and the anchorman listened, and at the end of the segment all the latter could say was:

"Charles Shreve, thank you for your time."

"You're very welcome," Charles said, and he smiled into the camera almost defiantly. It was a look that acknowledged how crazy his story was; it was also a look that conveyed how little he cared. "One last thing," he added. "Penelope Packard--if you're watching this, come find me. I miss you like bloody crazy."

The segment ended. Pip broke down and sobbed.

Life was strange. Life was good.

Life was so strange, and so good, and she was choking on its poignancy. She decided to take a nap before the power of her emotions gave her a stroke.

****

The station let Charles go. The ousting wasn't acrimonious, and it wasn't immediate. They gave him time to get himself together, to shake off the lingering effects of the pain killers, to recant his lunatic claims about conspiracies and spacemen. When he failed to do the last, they gave him a generous severance package and sent him on his way. He moved in with Pip and Masha two days later, four months to the day since their escape from the Dredmillon.

The apartment was small and situated in a rough area. It was the best they could afford. Pip was still a struggling student, and Masha's parents had cut her off in a show of disapproval. They hadn't liked her "vacuum shenanigans." It had made them laughingstocks in Petersburg. Masha worked for minimum wage at an animal shelter now. She'd never been happier.

In the evenings, Charles operated an Internet radio station specializing in paranormal research. Listeners called in to chat about aliens, prophetic dreams, ghost sightings, and so on. It was, by his own admission, ninety-percent crap. The callers were either dazzled by Charles' questionable celebrity within the paranormal research community or desperate to air their own brand of insanity. It was as far from the hallowed halls of public radio as possible, and further from respectability than Charles had ever imagined himself straying.

Still, there were benefits. Every once in a while, a listener sent in hard evidence pertaining to the Vacuum Gang Incident. There were photographs of bodies spilling limply out of canisters. Articles from underground papers on corruption within the Martell police force. A sympathetic chemist even ran an analysis on the bolt from Charles' abdomen. The test showed a mixture of palladium, tellurium, and something that looked like heavy chromium but became amorphous when exposed to temperatures greater than ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. It was nothing like any substance the chemist had ever encountered. Charles tucked the conclusion away in his "Dredmillon" file, which grew thicker every week.

And, of course, there was Eddie. Six months after his release from the hospital, Eddie gave an exclusive interview to Charles, which boosted program ratings by eight-thousand percent. Nothing Eddie said would convince a hardened skeptic, Pip and Charles knew, though state authorities did open an investigation into Kerry Vacuums shortly thereafter. Weeks later, it was announced that the company would be dissolved.

There was one more thing Pip had to do before she allowed that to happen.

****

"This is technically stolen property," Charles said, as anal-retentive as ever. His fall from grace hadn't mellowed him one bit.

Pip rolled her eyes at him. "It's about to be confiscated by the police anyway," she said. "I highly doubt Larry Guyde's going to come looking for it. He's got bigger problems."

They knelt side-by-side in the Shreves' backyard in East Pyle. It was eleven o'clock on a particularly clear night, and the stars were in riot above them. At their feet lay two Kerry vacuums and an axe. Charles picked up the axe and shot Pip an uncertain glance. "Are you sure this will work?"

Pip shrugged. "It should."

"You say that, but are you basing it on anything more than gut feeling?"

"When do I ever base things on more than gut feeling?" She laughed and ruffled his hair. "Just do it. And be quick about it this time. We don't need your grandpa hobbling out here and impugning your manhood again."

They both stood, and Pip sidled away as Charles lifted the axe. He took a quick breath, then brought it crashing down on one of the vacuums. The vacuum door sheared off. Pip congratulated him for getting it on the first try.

The second vacuum proved harder, but Charles still had it open in three swings. They lay there like two blue eyes staring up into the cosmos: twin portals, eerie in their silence and terrifying in their violence. Pip moved toward them. Charles grabbed her wrist.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

Pip gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Nope," she said, wrenching herself from his grasp. She knelt down and laid a hand on each of the canisters. Then she pushed them toward each other with their portals facing. Slowly, they drew closer together. Closer. Closer...

With a sound like an exploding transformer, the canisters slammed together, opening pressed to opening in a lovers' kiss. The canisters roared and shook, sending Pip and Charles diving for cover. In the back of her mind, Pip had acknowledged that this operation might just bring about the end of the universe. That was why she'd spent so much time on her hair and makeup. One might as well go out looking good.

The roar died down. The canisters settled. Charles peeked out from behind the wood pile where he'd been hiding. "Did it work?" he asked.

Pip jumped up, pumped her fist and cheered. "Did it work?" she cried. "Did it work? Hell yeah it worked! Two entrances to the same wormhole, each trying to swallow the other, turning the Confluence into an infinite closed loop, like a space-time ouroborus." She raced across the yard and threw herself into Charles' arms. "I'm a god damn genius."

"That you are," Charles chuckled, planting a kiss in her hair. He gestured to the shovels leaning against the wood pile. "Shall we?"

So they dug, and they laughed, and they buried the Confluence six feet down, and when they were done with that they went inside and ordered pizza. Dinner turned into snuggling, which turned into an enthusiastic romp on the couch that Charles never would have sanctioned had he not been drunk on victory, given that his mother and grandfather were sleeping directly above them.

"I'm happy," Charles said as they lay boneless in the afterglow. Pip got the sense that he never thought he'd hear himself use those words. He said them so wonderingly. "Are you happy, Pip?"

"Eh," said Pip. "Not bad."

Charles reached over and dug into her side. She squeaked with laughter and swatted at his hands. "No!" she giggled. "No, stop! I'm happy, okay? I'm happier than anyone on this or any other planet. Lay off!"

Charles withdrew his hand and pulled her against him. "Good night, Pip," he murmured.

"Good night, Charles," she said. "No creepy dreams tonight, okay?"

"No creepy dreams," he agreed.

And they slept. And neither of them dreamt at all.