A VIRGA MYSTERY
Borderline: Case 3b
As I entered the kitchen, Melissa was leaning against the counter, eating what seemed to be a bowl of jello with pieces of fruit inside it.
“Um, Melissa,” I began cautiously, “Next time, if you don’t want me to answer the phone, maybe you can–”
“Look, if you want to know about my history with Eric, just ask, don’t dance around the subject,” the brunette said sharply, jabbing her spoon out in my direction.
Well, naturally I was curious. But a question and answer session honestly hadn’t been my intention here, I’d mostly been hoping to avoid messing up her weekend any further. So, since I do have SOME sense of self preservation, and five minutes obviously hadn’t been enough time for her to calm down, I turned to leave.
I’d just passed through the doorway when I heard her spoon clatter back into her bowl. “I’m… sorry,” she called out. “That was rude of me.”
I turned back, a little surprised at her admission. After all, even at the best of times Melissa barely seemed to take note of the effect her remarks had on others. She set her bowl aside, brushed some hair back off her shoulder and folded her arms again. “Moreover, Eric probably would have come by here anyway, so it’s not your fault,” she stated. “It’s just… him and his attitude, they bring out the worst in me.”
I edged back into the kitchen, not sure if it would be proper to agree with that sentiment or not. I settled for, “Ex-es know how to pull our strings.”
She half smiled at that. “Why James, are you speaking from experience?”
“Uh…” I’ve mentioned I’m a naive guy from out of town, right? I did have a date for the prom, but that was about it. I considered bringing up the experience of Frank, from the last case I’d set to paper, but fortunately, she didn’t seem to expect me to answer the question.
“It’s not like Eric was really my boyfriend anyway,” she continued, lips tightening. “We went out on dates a couple times in high school. The relationship ended badly. Since then, I’ve made sure people are aware that my work takes priority over any sort of emotionalism.”
I decided to press my luck a bit and continue the conversation. “You mean something bad happened with Eric because you had put your work secondary?”
Melissa’s half smile returned. “You’re theorizing without the facts again.”
I believe I looked appropriately sheepish. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, it’s kind of cute.” She stared at me for a few more seconds, then reached back for her bowl again. “Anyway, relationships are just messy,” she declared. “Though for the record, the situation here was that a mutual friend of mine and Eric’s was diagnosed with a terminal illness.”
With that, she sighed and had another spoonful of jello. The fruit cubes (apples?) crunched as she bit down. I wasn’t sure how to react to her latest comment, so I said nothing in hopes that more information was forthcoming. It was.
“There was nothing I could do of course, magickly or otherwise,” Melissa continued after swallowing. “Even if it wasn’t against my principles surrounding death, keeping our friend alive would only have prolonged his suffering. However, you may have noticed that Eric has acceptance issues regarding death? He wanted to be able to communicate with our friend after he passed on. In fact, both of them seemed to be amenable to that idea.” She frowned. “I’d have thought that Cam, at the least, would have had more sense.”
I assumed correctly here that Cam was their mutual friend, and waited for Melissa to down another mouthful from her bowl. Her eyes narrowed after she swallowed.
“Of course, I think Eric may have talked him into it, and since they knew of my early dabblings in magick, they thought I could help. But of course, I strictly forbade it, and made it clear that if they tried something so idiotic, our friendship was over.” She paused. “Cam understood. But me and Eric didn’t speak after that.”
Her expression became wistful, and perhaps understandably, there was another pause at this point. Finally, I simply had to break the silence myself. “Why was their plan such a bad thing?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know the answer.
Melissa’s jello bowl got tossed aside again. “Because trying to tie people to the mortal plane after their time has passed… it messes with the natural order of things.” There was anger in her tone once more, and she jabbed her spoon out at me. “Death is a natural consequence of life. Whether it’s an accident, a suicide, or simply a dramatic demonstration of man’s inhumanity to man, death is simply one of those things you have to live with.” (I’m fairly certain her pun was unintentional.)
“Furthermore,” she went on, pushing off the counter and beginning to pace, “attributing every death, no matter how unjust, to some malevolent spirit is the height of arrogance on our part. What Eric can’t seem to understand is that we’re not immortal beings, nor do we need the supernatural in order to seriously screw ourselves over. Furthermore, I’m a witch, not a scientist or a psychologist.”
I tried to reconcile this new information with what I knew of Melissa to this point. “Yet working on your cases, you have saved lives,” I pointed out. “Was that wrong?”
“Oh, of course not,” Melissa sighed. “I’m not saying that you should sit and watch if someone’s going to get hit by a bus. What I’m saying is that when somebody DOES pass on, any attempt by us to hold them to this plane does nobody any good. If anything, we make the victim even more susceptible to supernatural attack!” She frowned, and leaned back against the counter. “For instance, not all evil spirits were evil to begin with.”
I didn’t doubt her, but was still having some trouble. “Yet how can you be so sure there WASN’T something supernatural in the death of Eric’s friend? That something else isn’t holding him to this plane? You didn’t even hear him out.”
Melissa didn’t answer right away, and when she spoke, even I could tell she was being evasive. “Eric called me out of the blue last year,” she remarked. “His grandmother was dying. He was wondering if maybe I’d changed my mind about talking with the dead. Obviously, I hadn’t.”
“That doesn’t mean this friend didn’t die in a supernatural way,” I insisted. “And since the person’s already dead, what’s the harm in looking into it – using non-supernatural means if necessary? I think you’re smart enough to do it that way.”
Melissa chuckled. “Thanks. Thing is, I know Eric. Whatever he’s doing, it’s a job best left for the police. Besides, he obviously has some other witch he’s associating with.”
“Oh.” I frowned, recalling that part of the conversation. “Were you serious about the scent thing then? Never mind, I’m sure you were,” I corrected myself immediately. (I know Melissa doesn’t like being asked if she’s serious.) “It’s only, Annie didn’t have a scent… or did she?”
Melissa gestured vaguely. “The smell is more tied to a witch’s associates than the witch herself, and has to build up over time when casting.” She frowned very slightly, but then gestured dismissively. “Another witch has to attune herself carefully to recognize it anyway, you shouldn’t worry about being around me.”
Which I thought might be Melissa’s attempt to put me at ease, given my natural follow up question was whether I was somehow being marked by my recent associations with her. Though her comment raised it’s own question. “Why did you attune yourself to pick it up on Eric then?” I asked.
That one seemed to catch her off guard, as Melissa opened and closed her mouth once before responding. “I… to be sure Eric has other resources,” she declared at last. And if I didn’t know better, I’d have said she was flustered. “Which he does,” Melissa added. “Which is good. Because I don’t want to have anything more to do with him!”
That said, she shoved herself away from the counter. “I’m heading back to my room now. Feel free to finish off the jello.”
Melissa stalked past me, and seeing as I was still assimilating all that she had told me, I let her go. However, with a passing glance at the bowl she had left behind, I did call out to her, “What’s the fruit you have in this?”
“Potatoes and turnips,” Melissa called back, before closing her bedroom door.
I left the jello for her.
My next involvement in this case involves me being suspended upside down over a bed of nails with people chanting all around me. Distressingly, this wasn’t even something I had a chance to prepare myself for – one moment I was typing an assignment on my computer in my bedroom, and the next, all the blood was suddenly rushing to my head as my world got turned upside-down.
Of course, I’m not sure how one would prepare for that sort of thing anyway… but that’s beside the point. Luckily for you, no matter how tempting it is for me to drop you into that puzzling situation as well, Melissa later provided me with some context that you might appreciate first.
You see, my little talk with her had had more of an effect than I’d realized. According to Melissa, the more she wondered about whether there really could have been a supernatural connection, the more something nagged at her.
“It felt like, in my casual dismissal of Eric, I had missed something,” she explained to me in the aftermath. “A feeling which persisted until, despite my better judgement, I got back in contact with Eric as he was leaving town…” She grimaced. “And went with him to investigate his friend’s death.”
What follows is a rough transcript based on what Melissa told me, and what I know of her and Eric’s personalities.
“I knew you would understand!” Eric said gleefully upon Melissa’s arrival at the bus stop/train station/airport. (Keeping it anonymous here. Pick your transportation of choice.) “I knew that finally you–”
“Look,” Melissa interrupted, poking him in the chest. “I’m not sure why I’m doing this. Maybe it’s because you’re an old friend. Maybe it’s in hopes of compensation. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing more interesting happening at the moment. However, if you push your luck, I’m GONE.”
Her tone and facial expression must have made it clear how serious she was, because Eric fell silent. He didn’t speak again until they were already on their way out of town.
“Did you want the particulars?” he voiced at last.
Melissa stopped staring out the window and turned back to him. “Alright,” she sighed.
“My friend’s name was Gary,” Eric began. “We met in college, through a role playing club.” He paused. “I think part of the reason that we became such good friends was that he also believed in magicks. It’s rare to find people like that, particularly where I live.”
Melissa raised an eyebrow. “Did this Gary consider himself a warlock?”
Eric frowned. “I thought you once told me that ‘warlock’ meant ‘traitor’.”
She grunted. “So you do remember that conversation.”
“Mel, just because I don’t usually like what you say, that doesn’t mean I don’t listen. So are you asking if Gary was a traitor?”
Melissa shook her head. “No. Thing is, you’d be surprised how much a person can learn by simply using that word instead of ‘wizard’. Both about the individual’s knowledge of magick, and about them as a person. I mean, I’m not sure when the history books got rewritten to change the ‘warlock’ definition, but male magick practicioners are an odd bunch.”
“Hm. Then to answer your question… no, he didn’t use either word. In fact he never even tried to do illusions. Gary thought it was too dangerous.”
“Maybe if he’d known some spells, he’d still be alive.”
Melissa posture tightened. “Don’t start. Don’t even start.”
Eric’s jaw clenched in response. “Sorry.”
My roommate resumed her scrutiny of the window. There was another extended silence. “Fine, how did he die?” she asked at last.
Eric’s posture relaxed marginally. “The official story is that he slipped on a throw rug, banged his head on a corner of his end table, and had a lamp fall on him.”
Melissa turned. “Still, seems straightforward.”
“Except Gary didn’t OWN a throw rug.”
“Oh.” The witch tugged on a lock of her hair. “Odd theory for the police to come up with then.”
Eric shot her a glare. “Are you taking this seriously??”
Melissa rolled her eyes. “Yes, Eric, I am being serious! But I still don’t know why I’m here. I mean, what, are you just using your friend’s death as an excuse to talk to me again?”
He flinched. “Wow, Mel, really?”
Melissa belatedly back-pedalled. “I mean… I am sorry that you… lost someone,” she offered. “It’s just, I’m not clear… look, Eric, how does the supernatural come into this?”
Eric continued to stare for a moment before returning his gaze forward. “Well, the way I see it, the rug was planted by someone. Someone who had probably been inside the apartment, and who, accidentally or otherwise, killed Gary.”
“Which is NOT necessarily supernatural,” Melissa said patiently. Then her eyes narrowed. “Eric, I hope, I really, truly hope that you don’t expect me to conjure up Gary’s spirit to ask him who did it.”
“No, I already… that is… ah, heck, you’d figure this out anyway,” Eric sighed. “Melody already said that Gary doesn’t know who it was.”
Melissa crossed her arms. “Melody,” she murmured, switching mental gears onto this new name. She exhaled slowly through her mouth, then inhaled sharply through her nose. “So that’s the witch I can smell on you?”
Eric cast her another sidelong glance. “What… literally smell? I thought you were joking.”
“Have you ever known me to joke? No, she’s actually either taken the effort to imprint herself on you, or you’ve known her for a couple of years at least.” (So I suppose I’m safe – for the moment.) Melissa’s nose twitched. “I’d say Melody’s sort of cinnamony.”
“Ah. Weird,” was her companion’s only remark. Eric then went quiet, yanking lightly on one of his earlobes.
Melissa began to get a very bad feeling in the pit of her stomach, as suddenly a couple of the pieces about the situation interlocked for her. “Eric, how long HAVE you known her?”
Her bald companion shrugged. “I don’t remember exactly…”
“Eric. HOW LONG?”
It seemed like he wasn’t going to answer, which itself was enough to confirm Melissa’s suspicions. She was just about to call him on it, when he provided the answer. “Since Cam.”
Melissa swore again, her fists clenching involuntarily. “That’s why you pulled away from me after he died? So that you could get this Melody girl to do what I strictly forbade? What is it with you and girls nicknamed Mel, huh?!”
“I didn’t go out with Melody!” Eric protested. “And I’m not proud of it, okay? But I couldn’t bear to lose Cam. Not like that. Anyway, it was just a seance or two, it’s not like me and Melody have been trying to raise the dead.”
The brunette witch somehow resisted the urge to slap him. “You’re even stupider than I thought,” she accused. “Even spells for talking to the dead, if not done properly, can act as a conduit for evil, or they can warp the morality of the spirit invoked, they’ll even–”
“Melody did what you refused to do,” Eric interrupted angrily. “Naturally she took precautions.”
“For Cam’s sake I bloody well hope she did.”
“He was my friend too, Mel!” Eric shouted at her; she met his renewed glare with one of her own.
Then she abruptly leaned in closer, to sniff at his neckline.
“Dammit, what is WITH you?” he said giving her a shove back into her seat. “I’m starting to regret ever contacting you again.”
“I’m not surprised,” she retorted, eyeing him more closely. “Tell me, when this Melody made a supernatural connection with your friend Gary, what exactly did his spirit have to say? Did he say that he’d been murdered?”
“He used the word murder?”
The brunette witch peered at him, using one of her ‘under the microscope’ gazes.
“Well, no, not exactly,” Eric amended. “But Gary said he was still partially tied to our world because the killer was hiding. Then our connection was broken. Melody wasn’t able to discern who Gary meant by ‘killer’. But his apartment door was locked from the inside, so this couldn’t have been a typical assailant. It had to be supernatural.”
“And that’s when you thought of me.”
Melissa almost leaned in to sniff at Eric again, but then thought better of it and wiggled herself back into a comfortable position on her seat instead. Meaning resting her feet up on the object in front of her, folding her body as she crossed her arms again. Her gaze became one of serious thought. “You trust Melody?” she asked after a moment, without looking at Eric.
“I do,” Eric replied. “So if you must talk with her, please don’t badmouth all the efforts she’s made on my behalf.”
“And how long have you been volunteering your time at a retirement home?”
“Ever since my grandmother went into… wait, how in the deuce did you know about that?”
“Because I know why I’m here now,” Melissa sighed. “Why I felt I had to come. But I wish I didn’t. Damn, damn… don’t talk to me any more, I have some things to sort out.”
Shooting her one final look, which Melissa caught out of the corner of her eye and said might best be described as a mixture of puzzlement and irritation, Eric did as she requested. And by the way, regardless of the form of public transportation you pictured, you can also assume that, by now, no one else was going to bother Melissa either.
The next event which has a bearing on this case occurred when Eric and Melissa arrived outside Gary’s apartment building. (I’ll spare you the intervening time – Melissa says that the only notable thing to happen was them having a meal together. I can only assume Eric ended up paying the bill.) So, let’s fast forward to that.
ASIDE: Rev Fitz has been putting together information about how to promote your Web Fiction. I included a blurb about Twitter in his post here. Feel free to agree/disagree!