A VIRGA MYSTERY
Net Worth: Entry 2b (really)
Melissa marched right into Annie’s apartment as soon as she’d unlocked the door. A cat, which I can only presume was Tabby, peered up from the leather couch at us. The animal fired off a look that either said ‘don’t mess with anything’ or ‘are you here to feed me?’. Melissa paid no attention to him, locating the computer in a corner of the living room and fishing a couple of items out of her purse.
“James, can you look around back of that thing and disconnect any wires or cables that might be hooking it up directly to the net or a network or whatever the heck it is these computers hook into?” she requested as she got set up. “Saves me just pulling out everything.”
“Um, sure,” I replied. I approached the machine a bit nervously, wondering if the blank monitor wasn’t somehow staring at me.
Observing my unease, Melissa made a ‘tch tch’ noise. “It’s perfectly safe as long as there’s no power to the thing,” she pointed out. “Unless it’s some whole new breed of entity, that is.”
“Oh, VERY reassuring,” I said sarcastically, before remembering that Melissa never seemed to recognize sarcasm.
With a sigh, I peered around the back of the tower. The only external connection that Annie’s computer seemed to have was an ethernet cable, so I disconnected that, tossing the end some distance away. So far, so good. I decided to unhook the webcam while I was back there too; there were a series of scorch marks on the casing beside it.
I then looked around the room for evidence of wireless fidelity. In the process, I found there were some books on the supernatural stacked on Annie’s coffee table. I guessed she had gone to the library before consulting with Melissa.
“Are we in trouble if the computer connects to the internet as soon as you log in?” I asked, after not spotting anything right away.
“Hmm. I suppose it could allow the entity to do a web search on how to escape from my clutches,” Melissa mused. “But no, it won’t leave via wifi. It’s the hard line that I was worried about.”
I gave up my search. “Okay, then you’re good to… ah, go.” I was momentarily taken aback by the sight of Melissa pouring what seemed to be a small ring of flour onto the floor.
Part of me wished she hadn’t worn those tight jeans today. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to tell a woman how to dress, I know the problem is me, but it makes me think that helping Melissa more often might cause my mind to wander more often to the wrong places. I suppose that makes me shallow.
Melissa stood then, and turned. “Good,” she stated, ignoring any expression that might have been on my face. She moved to the computer, stuck a finger into a jar of what seemed to be face cream, traced a symbol on the monitor, and took a step back to admire her handiwork.
“Will that banish the entity?” I asked timidly, after a moment.
“No,” Melissa said absently. “It’s more to protect me.” She put the cream back into her purse. “Truth be told, I suspect the evil has already flown the coop, but if it IS still here, that makes this job easier. Might even mean you even get to sleep in your own bed tonight, instead of the couch.”
Oh, right. “Um, actually, about that…”
“Hm? What about it?” Melissa wondered, looking back my way. “Come now James, you didn’t expect Annie to crawl into bed with ME tonight, did you?”
“Ah, no, ah, rrrgl…” The way she wiggled her eyebrows at me brought to mind an image of the two ladies cuddling, successfully trampling right over any other coherent thoughts I was having. It’s only in typing this up that I have to ask whether some of Melissa’s antics are done deliberately. To keep me off balance? Because of some subconscious interest in me? Well, I shouldn’t speculate.
At any rate, in the moment, I could no longer vocalize the protest that had been on my lips moments before. Melissa, as always, appeared to ignore any effect caused by her remarks, or was very politely choosing not to remark on my jaw dropping open.
“Okay James, stand back,” Melissa said, pulling out a candle and a lighter. “I’m about to do something here that’s a little more daring than changing the colour of our doorknob.”
She lit the candle and moved into the small circle of flour (circle of power?). I noticed that she also held Annie’s key in the palm of her hand.
I backed off towards the couch, exchanging a quick glance with Annie’s cat. Tabby seemed to have decided that our actions were more a source of amusement than any kind of threat, and had curled back up, observing us with half an eye.
As I watched, Melissa closed her eyes, murmured a few words I couldn’t hear, reopened her eyes and stated more loudly, “Mutatio!”. (Which is, as always, from the latin – it means a change or transformation.)
It wasn’t like what you’d see in the cartoons, with lots of flashing lights or Melissa spinning around on one foot, her long brown hair flying about her. Reality just seemed to stretch a bit, as if it were an elastic, and when it snapped back into place a half second later, Annie was standing in the living room instead of Melissa.
Annie looked almost exactly as she had in Melissa’s office not half an hour ago. Shirt, jeans, ankle boots, the whole deal. Only the red hair barrette was missing. Without hesitation, Annie blew out her candle, marched forwards to the computer, sat down and switched it on.
“Whoa, wait, what?” I protested, finally finding my voice and taking a step forwards.
Without turning, Annie raised a hand to motion me back. I paused, glancing again over at Tabby. The cat had gone to the effort of standing up, and was looking towards Annie in what seemed to be surprise. However, after a moment he curled his legs back under himself and settled for peering suspiciously.
Illusion, I realized. That was still Melissa over there in the chair, not Annie at all. She must have done something similar to appear as a janitor during her prior case, when visiting Dan/Danielle.
The computer completed the boot up process, and I watched as Melissa/Annie dragged the mouse around the screen, clicking randomly in a few places, even opening a file. Finally, my roommate shook her head and reached out to hit the power button. However, pushing the button had no effect.
“You have to hold it longer. Or select ‘Shut Down’ from the ‘Start’ menu,” I offered helpfully.
“Agh. Windows!” came Melissa’s exasperated voice from Annie’s body.
She shut the computer down properly, picked up a small device I hadn’t noticed next to the keyboard, then spun around in the chair, scrutinizing the thing. “Well, that should have garnered some response, if there was a response to garner,” my roommate stated. “Nothing registered, so as I surmised, the entity must have escaped earlier.”
Melissa/Annie pocketed her device, then sighed. “Guess I’ll have to start interviewing Annie’s friends and professors then. Damn it, I hate campus interviews, people never take me seriously.”
I shrugged. “Looking like that, they might react differently,” I pointed out.
Melissa/Annie smirked. “Until I speak. Which is all I’d be doing over the phone. Anyway, I don’t want to get Annie into more trouble, and illusion is one of the annoying spells. You have to constantly maintain it on some level. Even in person, it’s not worth it.” As if to confirm that fact, after the next time I blinked, I saw the more diminutive Melissa was sitting in front of me again.
“Okay, well, I could help you, if you like,” I found myself saying. I couldn’t tell if I’d spoken out of a desire to help Melissa, help Annie, or simply learn more about what was really going on.
Melissa fired off a smile. “You wouldn’t know the right questions to ask, and I suspect you’d want me to explain them to you if you heard me ask them. However, if you are keen on helping… I suspect I’ll be needing a orb of hex by morning. If I give you the address, could you pick that up for me? The store is my regular supplier, tell the owner to put it on my tab. Is that all right?”
I agreed. It didn’t seem like it would be that much of a problem.
At this point, I could go into certain details. I could explain how much difficulty I had in finding the shop in question, half hidden as it was atop a bookstore. I could tell you about all the very strange objects that I saw inside said shop, as if that school in ‘Harry Potter’ had decided to have a yard sale. I could even remark on the odd appearance of the white haired owner named Alicia, or go in detail about the little lecture she gave me about Melissa needing to pay her bills on time, before she handed over the orb of hex. Which, incidentally, she said has some connection to hexadecimal numbers.
But I believe I shall postpone on saying any more than I have already. After all, it’s not immediately relevant to this case, and I suspect I’ll end up back in that store at some point in the future.
Arriving back at our apartment after that trip, and not finding Melissa, I left her orb on the desk and took my laptop over to Adam’s place. He’s another first year student like me, who was in a couple of my classes. He didn’t have a problem with me leaving the computer there. In fact, we’d originally planned to get together to do a bit of homework, and we ended up going out for a bite to eat afterwards, so it wasn’t until well after 9 o’clock that I made it back home.
There was a gentle rain falling outside. The room itself was dark when I opened the door, so I reached out for the light switch.
“FREEZE!” came Melissa’s voice from the darkness.
I froze. It seemed the prudent course of action, given her tone. In other words, the one that makes you obey without thinking.
The front door swung shut behind me, and all was darkness.
“No lights,” came Melissa’s voice yet again. My eyes began to adjust, but I couldn’t see exactly where she was.
“What’s going on?” I asked, lowering my hand from the switch. I realized I was whispering.
“It’s outside,” Melissa muttered. Her voice seemed to be coming from behind her desk, so I headed in that direction.
“What is?” I murmured back. I managed to avoid bumping into anything as I rounded the desk, which was when a brief flash of lightning outside reminded me of the events of earlier today. Electronic entities. “You mean the thing tracking Annie?”
“Mmmm,” Melissa said as a form of agreement. I finally spotted her, sitting cross legged on the floor, staring down at a sheet of paper. “Didn’t you notice the streetlights had shorted out on our side of the street?” she added.
I blinked. “I thought that was just part of the rainstorm,” I said sheepishly.
Melissa looked up. “Much like the campus had a small earthquake earlier this month. No, this entity’s definitely after Annie – she’s in your room resting, by the way. The woman had every phone within a block radius suddenly ringing not two hours ago. Then a soda machine fired cans at her, a traffic light switched over while she was in the intersection, and finally there were electrical discharges from light fixtures pursuing her all the way here. Shorting out the streetlights.”
“Oh. Oh my,” I said, moving to glance nervously out the window. At present, it looked like all the houses on our street still had power, despite the problem with the streetlights. That probably should have tipped me off. I wondered where the thing was lurking. “How is Annie coping?”
“Resting, as I said,” Melissa replied distractedly, her tone suggesting to me that the mental state of our house guest had probably never entered her mind. She’d probably hustled Annie into my room and then started doing her pencil scribblings out here. Shaking my head, I switched gears.
“Okay, so, ringing phones – it can get into those now?”
“Apparently. It’s strength is growing exponentially.”
“Great. Is there any chance it has the power to destroy this building to get at Annie indirectly?”
“No. Not yet, anyway,” Melissa murmured. “See, I’ve isolated our apartment by unplugging every type of electrical device and setting up a ward. In return, our entity is being patient, reasoning that eventually Annie’ll have to leave here or plug in a hairdryer or something. I figure I have a couple of hours before it decides to escalate, and it will likely try to gain access through one of the neighbouring apartments first.”
“Perfect.” A thought struck me. “Did you unplug our fridge?”
“I unplugged everything.”
“I had ice cream in the freezer…”
Melissa rose. “Actually James, it’s a good thing you’re here. I’m stuck on something and could use a male opinion.”
I furrowed my brow. “Oh yes? About what, that family tree thing you’ve been looking at?” I gestured at the paper on the floor, my eyes having adjusted to the darkness by now.
“No, about an interview from this afternoon.” Melissa began pacing back and forth. “It was with an ex-boyfriend of Annie’s. Interestingly, she didn’t have him on her original list, I got the name from a mutual friend.”
“An ex… then you think he’s the one behind the attacks!”
Her head shook. “Not directly.”
I tried coming at the situation from the other side. “Then could Annie be evil, like Dan was, and setting this guy up? Hoping he’ll get in trouble for hurting her??”
There was a pause, as Melissa stopped pacing two steps away, then slowly turned around. Even in the dark, I could tell she was smiling at me.
“You know,” she said in amusement, “it might work better if I describe to you my conversation with this gentleman, before you theorize?”
I pulled at the collar of my shirt. “Uhm, yeah,” I agreed. “Go for it.”
His name was Frank Granges. He was in third year, like Annie, and Melissa had learned from this mutual friend of theirs (someone on Annie’s list) that they’d met back in first year. They’d dated for over twelve months, broken things off rather abruptly last May, and hadn’t spoken much in the four months since. Upon reflection, Melissa had elected to go see him in person, rather than simply call him on the phone.
“Yes?” Frank said warily, eyeing Melissa from behind his half closed door.
“Hello!” Melissa replied, smiling. “I’ve come to talk to you about Annie. Annie Potts,” she clarified, off his look of confusion.
“About…” His face clouded. “There’s not much I can tell you. We run into each other once a week because we attend the same class, outside of that we don’t speak these days. Why, what’s the problem?”
“Someone’s trying to kill her,” Melissa said bluntly.
She watched as expressions of shock, amusement and concern all fought for control of Frank’s features. Concern quickly won out. “All right, come in,” he decided, pulling the door open completely. Melissa walked in.
Frank’s off-campus place itself wasn’t very large – reminiscent of a suite in a hotel, minus the minibar, Melissa said in an attempt to describe it. She also said that the bedroom door was slightly ajar, and that in the bedroom she could see a computer had been set up. Frank himself was of average build and height, brown hair, glasses, wearing a T-shirt and dress pants.
“So,” Melissa began, glancing idly around the apartment. “You broke up with Annie last May?”
He hesitated. “Well, it might be more accurate to say she broke things off with me in April, then waited around until May to officially end the relationship,” Frank corrected. “But then, she’s a non-confrontational type. I don’t hate her, and I wouldn’t try to kill her. So cross me off your list of suspects.”
“If not you, any idea who would?” Melissa questioned.
Frank hesitated longer, moving to look out the window. “Not really,” he said at last. “She could be dating again for all I know… have you checked with any current boyfriends? They’d know more than me.” He turned back. “For that matter, who are you anyway? Are you with the police?”
“I thought not. The blouse didn’t look regulation. Annie has a new circle of friends?”
“Hardly relevant. Tell me, how long has Annie been interested in the supernatural?”
Frank frowned. “She hasn’t been. I mean, aside from herbal remedies and the like, which I think is a family thing. Is Annie into the supernatural now?”
“What about computers, how long has Annie been into those?”
“She’s not into them, in fact she doesn’t like technology. She doesn’t avoid it though, everyone has to be at least a bit tech savvy these days. But she’s majoring in biology, like me… hey, surely if you know her, you know all this?” He glared. “Are you actually serious? About Annie’s life being in danger?”
“I wish people would stop asking me if I’m serious about things,” Melissa sighed, folding her arms across her chest. “Why would I bother making this sort of thing up?”
“I don’t know. But cruel pranks are popular on campus these days,” Frank pointed out. “Also, based on what you’ve asked so far, I’m half expecting you to tell me that the person trying to kill Annie is acting like an evil spell caster from a computer game.”
“Something like that, yes,” Melissa agreed. (Have I mentioned she doesn’t always recognize sarcasm?) “Do you do much computer programming yourself?”
Frank was, I believe, too dumbfounded to do anything but answer. “Er, it’s a hobby… has anyone ever told you that you need to work on your people skills?”
“Have you ever done computer programming for Annie?” Melissa pressed.
“No. You’re losing me here,” Frank added, exasperation creeping into his tone.
“Fine. The problem is that there’s a computer file out there that knows a lot of personal details about Annie,” Melissa stated. “The sort of file that someone in a relationship with her might know of. I’m tracking it’s origins.”
“You’re tracking a computer file on… oh. I see,” Frank replied, suddenly going quiet. He also, Melissa told me, looked uncomfortable.
“Would you happen to know of such a file then?” Melissa asked pointedly.
“Oh, well… I might’ve known of one?” Frank said uncertainly.
“Aha! So, you keep computer files on all your former girlfriends then,” Melissa decided. “Pictures too?”
“What?? Whoa, wait, back the pumpkin up!” Frank protested. “First of all, I am NOT some crazy stalker person who keeps computer files on girlfriends. Or any other kind of person! I mean, sure, I have this nasty habit of archiving all my email, but who doesn’t? Second of all, Annie was only my third girlfriend! And thirdly, well… thirdly, there wouldn’t be a file on Annie at all if I’d only had a clue as to why we broke up in the first place,” he grumbled.
There was a brief pause. Melissa folded her arms again. “Oh yes?” she said at last, deciding Frank needed a little more prodding.
ASIDE: If you’re reading this after April 2018, you likely missed Rev Fitz’s April Fool entry, which is amusing, along with my appreciation to “Serial Fiction Digest” for featuring ‘University Witch’ at the start of the month. So consider taking a look. ^.^ Thanks for reading.