Monthly Archives: April 2013

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic – Chapter 4: AOX Investigations

Wow, another week has raced by. Right now I’m hard at work on the redrafting of the sequel to Cubicles–I think I’ve figured out how to shrink the darn thing down from 170,000 words to a more reasonable 110,000 without hurting the book. We will see.

In other news, eight short stories & novelettes will be rolled out as individual e-book “samplers” (priced at $0.99 or $1.99) over the next two months as we approach the release of the entire short story collection ($5.99) in late May. So if you want to read all nine stories, wait for the short story collection–you’ll save money that way. If you want to pick and choose which stories to read,  Parallels and Writer’s Flight have already rolled out, but caution: they’ve been bundled together, so you only need to buy one of the e-books to get both short stories. Also, if Parallels has an orange cover with no mannikins, don’t buy it–that means the e-retailer is selling a very old version they ought not be selling! You want the blue cover with the mannikins on it, and Writer’s Flight is listed as the bonus story.

Now, on to Chapter 4  from Cubicles, Blood, and Magic. If you missed the earlier chapters, click here. This Tuesday we start with Dorelai in Dr. Xu’s medical examination room. What follows is the entire fourth chapter from this contemporary fantasy novel. (PG-13)

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic: Dorelai Chronicles, Book One

 Lynn Kilmore

Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore

Copyright © 2012 by L. M. May

Published by Osuna Publishing

This story is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Chapter 4:

AOX Investigations

“Excellent, Dorelai,” Louie said to me in a sarcastic tone as I rested on the examination table in that oh-so-cold medical treatment room of Dr. Xu’s. “Glad to see you’re feeling well enough to interrogate Rabbi Eli behind my back.” He handed a printout to Xu. “Now if you’ll excuse us,” he said to Xu and Eli, “I want to talk to Ms. Trelton privately.”

“I want the IV out first,” I said. The itching of my skin around the catheter was driving me nuts.

Xu nodded his head as he looked over the printout. “Fine to remove it.” He shoved the printout in his medical coat pocket. But as he adjusted my examination table back to a semi-recline position, we were both distracted by the way Rabbi Eli and Louie glared at each other.

You, Rabbi,” Louie said, “have the bloody absolute worst self-preservation instincts of anyone I know.”

“What risks I take is my decision, not yours. I said what I felt must be said to her.”

“That may be, Rabbi, but I can see to it you are completely shut out of this investigation if you get too far out of line.”

Instead of responding to Louie’s words, Eli said to me, “I shall go and wait in the consultation room until you have need of me, Dorelai,” and left through the sound shield without another word or even a look at Louie.

Both Xu and I pretended we had been preoccupied with getting my IV detached while Louie muttered, “Bloody idealistic fool,” under his breath as he glowered in the direction Eli had gone.

Xu gently tugged the catheter out of my hand. “There.” He pressed a cotton ball on the puncture. “Push down hard on this.”

“Dr. Xu,” Louie said, “you were in here while she grilled Rabbi Eli on his poisoning and the Mather police department, and didn’t stop her.”

Louie made it sound like I’d been hounding Eli.

Xu paused in taping down the cotton ball onto the back of my hand. “Dude, he poured his guts out all over the floor with little prompting from her. I had to tell him twice to shut up.” He ripped off another strip of tape to make sure the cotton would stay put.

Louie pressed the fingers of his left hand to his forehead like he had just come down with a headache. “I can see it all too clearly.”

I kept quiet. Maybe they’d forget about me listening to them.

“If you didn’t want him blabbing, dude, you should’ve totally kicked him out of Knossos … wait, even that wouldn’t have worked since he knew about the poisoning. He would have sought her out.”

“Enough,” Louie snapped. “I can see now that today was not the day to introduce them to each other, but then, who knew Ms. Trelton would be crawling with the world’s filthiest case of nightmare dust?”

Hey!” I said. “I’m not filthy!”

“Listening in, were you?” Louie gave me such a mocking triumphant grin at catching me doing so that I had to dig my nails into my palms to keep from losing my temper.

“Stop provoking my patient, Louie, the crisis is over,” Xu said. He lifted his index finger in warning. “You did a good job keeping her too angry to be afraid, but I want her to rest now.”

“I had no such intention.” Louie brushed invisible specks off the sleeves of his suit and shot his cuffs. “Now let’s get down to business … Xu, scram.”

Xu stripped off his surgical gloves and shoved them into a medical waste container, then paused to lift his finger again in warning at Louie. “Calm.” He pointed at the blood pressure monitor, which was still going since I had the cuff around my arm. “I’ll know if you don’t.” He passed on through the sound shield.

I narrowed my eyes at Louie as he picked up the stone from the floor and again squeezed it between his hands while focusing in on it.

Nice was not a word I would use to describe the Louie I had encountered today. Irascible, cynical, secretive, high-handed … those were the right words.

And don’t forget manipulative. Very, very manipulative.

It was all too clear to me now that he’d been deliberately dangling mystery objects before me for months in preparation to “bring me into the fold.”

The shielding around us changed, going to the colors that shielded Knossos Tower, but then becoming opaque so that I couldn’t see through it. It was like being stuck inside a silver-blue bubble.

If I decided to work for Louie, it would never be boring, I had to hand him that.

“They can’t see us or hear us,” Louie said as he placed the stone back on the floor. “Nor can Xu barge in with some forgotten matter that can wait.” He walked over to where I sat, and dug into his jacket pockets. “Take a look at these, and pick out the ones that glow.” He dumped ten granite stones, each the size of my thumb, into my lap.

None of them, as their weight pressed onto my thighs, had the bright auras I’d seen so far. But if I looked closely, one had faint traces of the sound shield aura around it. I picked it out from the pile and handed it to him. “Here.”

Louie smiled—rather grimly, I thought—and scooped the stones back up to put back in his pockets. He dug out a key and wove a silver-colored magical sphere around it with his fingers.

Once he was done, he put the baseball-sized sphere on my lap, where it sank only a smidgen. I could barely feel the weight of it.

“Do me a favor,” Louie said, “and get the key out.”

The whole thing made me think of an unnaturally light paperweight.

Cautiously I placed my palms on either side of the sphere. The surface felt wriggling and fluid under my fingers. I curved the fingers of my right hand in and down, discovering that the sphere’s innards oozed around my hand like gel.

It was a struggle to plunge my fingers all the way in to wrap my hand around the key, and an invisible force tugged on the key as I pulled it outward, trying to yank it back in.

My fingers emerged from the sphere with the key, and the silver sphere collapsed in on itself. I turned my palm up, and opened my fingers to expose the key to his view. “Here.”

Maybe I was imagining things, but Louie looked impressed as he plucked the key from off my sweaty fingers. He held the key up before him, turning it back and forth, shrugged, then pocketed it. “Dorelai, you are in one hell of a bloody mess.”

Nervous, I pushed the collapsed sphere off my lap to fall to the floor, but instead it dissolved out of existence.

“First, I want you to agree that you’ll consider working for me,” Louie said. “I want you to swear it, for the record, here and now.”

Weird. But it was clear Louie had a reason for his request that he wasn’t going to tell me, yet.

“Fine,” I said, and raised my right hand up. “I swear I’ll consider working for you.”

“Right,” Louie said. “At least that’s taken care of. If you had refused, you would not have been allowed to set foot outside of Knossos until you did so.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” I said sotto voce.

“I can see that we shall get on quite well,” Louie said in a tone that mocked both of us. He pulled out his cell phone, which glowed with the same aura as he did. “Let’s put you down for an interview with me at eight a.m. tomorrow at my management office. I’ll have O’Keefe bring you in.”

Okay, that was moving too damn fast for my taste. “W—”

Don’t waste our time with rubbish about all of this moving too fast,” Louie said. “You can blame Jake for putting you into a situation that requires urgency. My plan is to hire you into AOX Investigations. You need to meet the founders of AOX as soon as can be arranged. You’ve already met Dr. Xu, and tonight you’ll meet Mr. O’Keefe.”

“Wait, what do you mean I’m meeting Mr. O’Keefe tonight? I have a farewell dinner for Tim I need to be at.”

“I’m having O’Keefe meet you at your flat after your dinner to search it for any hazards and gather any clues related to your overdose. While we’re not the police, Dorelai, AOX Investigations does have the resources to look deeper into your poisoning.”

I was being railroaded, but I wasn’t sure if it was because Louie was grabbing for control, or if he wished to shield me from something without telling me what it was, or both. But I was tired, and right now dealing with Louie made my head hurt.

Also, my back ached from sitting in one position so long. The paper under me rattled as I tried to shift into a more comfortable position.

“Louie,” I said, “if you don’t start being straight with me about what is happening to me and what is going on in Mather, I’m going to become very uncooperative. There won’t be any hint of when or where or what I will do, so you won’t see it coming until it’s too late, but I will get you back for keeping me too much in the dark.”

He pocketed his cell phone, then stood there for a while, and I could tell by his gaze that he was waiting to see if I’d cave in under his silence and take my threat back.

I folded my arms across my chest and stared straight back at him.

Louie’s mouth twitched, and then he got a scheming expression that alarmed me. He was plotting something. Something I wasn’t going to like.

“Threats don’t work with me, Dorelai, and I thank you for making one; it makes it easier for me to ignore any lingering scruples I had about using you in the investigation involving Jake.” Louie watched me the way our family cat Zeta used to watch the pigeons from the living room windowsill. “Once our discussion here is done, your shockingly fast recovery means I can send you back to Granite Hills to keep an eye on Jake for me.”

I opened my mouth to say, “No,” then realized that I did intend to keep an eye on Jake to figure out how to nail him for the poisoning. It was just the part about spying for Louie that I objected to.

“I have absolutely no doubt,” Louie said, “that you want to confirm that Jake poisoned you, and to see to it that he is punished for it. If you want that to happen, you’re going to have to cooperate with AOX, and with me, because otherwise you will get nowhere. Nightmare dust doesn’t show up in typical medical tests, which is why Jake thought he could use it with impunity, the git. And Rabbi Eli has already warned you about the hazards of going to the Mather PD for assistance.”

“You aren’t the only game in town, Louie. I know about the stakeout at the Chesterton; I saw them this morning. Golden auras around them like angels. I can easily find them to tell them about what Jake has been up to. Somehow I don’t think they’ll find talk of a magical drug surprising.”

Alarmed, Louie leaned forward and put his hands on the examination table so that we were eye to eye. He smelled not only of sandalwood, but of antiseptic soap. “Those are Magi, Dorelai! The secret police of Zaliel and its ilk, and you are a bloody fool if you tell them you can see their auras. What else have you seen?”

“Golden eyes plastered on some of the buildings.” I shuddered. “The way those pupils move around makes my skin crawl.”

Bloody hell, whatever else you decide to do, don’t let Zaliel find out you can see its eyes. It’d slit your throat. Was there any indication that Zaliel knew you were looking at it?”

I thought back over the morning and those eyes I’d seen. “No, I don’t think so. Dumb luck, since I did gaze around me a bit too much.”

He shoved away from the examination table so hard that I felt it shake under me, and paced about the medical room with one hand pressed to his forehead in thought. “For once, Rabbi Eli is right; you have seen too much for discretion on our part to be of any good to you. So I warn you. If Zaliel ever finds out what you are truly capable of, it will either enslave or kill you, unless you have become an employee of mine so that I can compel it to leave you alone.”

The whole scenario of Louie being able to hold Zaliel at bay just because I was his employee sounded suspiciously odd. He was hiding something again. Most likely multiple somethings.

There was a bitter taste on my tongue like I’d chewed a couple of pills. I felt as if invisible walls were closing in on me, my life becoming a narrow tunnel I’d be forced to go down whether I liked to or not.

I’d have to go along with Louie’s plans until I had a better understanding of what the hell was going on. I could run away to seek help from Thanos in New York City, but I had a hunch that a permanent escape from Louie or Zaliel wasn’t going to be that simple. I had let too much slip in past friendly conversations with Louie about my family when I visited his emporium—I now recalled with alarm all those questions he’d asked about them.

And both Eli and Louie had said, “Zaliel and its ilk,” which meant there was more than one creature like Zaliel lurking around.

Louie had gotten himself back under control while I was distracted with my thoughts. “Ms. Adams is the other founder of AOX you need to meet, and she will be back in Mather by Monday.” He pulled out his cell phone. “We can get you in with her on Monday at noon.”

Go along, for now. “Fine.”

Louie looked up from the display to scowl at me. “You’ve been suspiciously quiet, and now you’ve agreed to this meeting with Ms. Adams without putting up a fight. If you’re planning to skip town this weekend, I strongly advise you to reconsider. We don’t yet know who gave that nightmare dust to Jake, nor do we know if your poisoning was accidental or intentional.”

Shit. Louie was right about that. The last thing I wanted to do was jump from the frying pan straight into the fire.

“With Zaliel’s Magi now circling in on Jake,” Louie said, “our time to carry out an investigation will be very short. The Magi aren’t interested in justice, only in control of magic and magic wielders, and they aren’t known for their subtlety. Jake will soon realize his experimentation with nightmare dust to move up the corporate ladder has been discovered, despite his pathetic attempts to cover his tracks by using the antidote; so will the fool who supplied him with both magical substances. We need to work fast. I want you to figure out a way to introduce Rabbi Eli as Samuel Parisi to Jake tonight.”

At least two hours must have passed since I left Granite Hills. “What time is it?”

“Three-seventeen.”

What! We leave for Tim’s dinner at five.” I swung my feet over the edge of the examination table and shifted into a sitting position with my legs hanging off the side. Except for the fatigue, I felt remarkably well for someone who had just been through major treatment for poison. I grabbed onto the blood pressure cuff.

Do not even think about removing that cuff, nor making any attempt to stand, until Xu returns. I’m in no mood to listen to his complaints for letting you do so.”

There were so many questions I had not gotten a chance to ask Louie, but they were going to have to wait until tomorrow. I needed to concentrate on getting Eli into Tim’s dinner without raising suspicions. “Let’s get Dr. Xu in here.”

“One last thing, Dorelai. Give no indication of what auras you can see, and stay away from anything that looks magical. Don’t touch it, don’t go near it if you can help it. You can trust Rabbi Eli and O’Keefe to protect you, but they have to give you enough space so that whoever is involved in your poisoning feels he or she can approach you. Be aware of what is going on around you at all times.”

Translation: I was going to be used by Louie as bait.

Louie bent down to pick up the stone upon the tile, and the shielding around us abruptly collapsed in upon itself to fade away.

Dr. Xu shoved open the swinging door, which meant he’d been waiting right outside the shield. His eyes narrowed at the sight of me sitting up. Before he could say anything, I said, “I wanted to sit up. Louie made me wait to take the cuff off.”

Louie pushed open the swinging door to shout out, “Rabbi Eli!”

“I have got to go back to Granite Hills,” I said to Xu.

Eli rushed into the examination room to look at me, worried. “Dorelai?”

“She’s fine,” Louie said.

While Xu checked my vitals one last time, Eli said to Louie, “Ines got a call from Ed Noonan. They’re getting restless over there.”

“Understood,” Louie said. “Rabbi, I need you to get as close as you can to Jake tonight to observe him and his friends. You’ll be using the name Samuel Parisi. Dorelai, have you got a plan ready?”

I said to Eli, as I slipped off the examination table to stand with Dr. Xu’s help, “Start outside The Silver Diner at five, and stroll from there toward the Chesterton Downtown building. It’s a six block walk, so there’ll be plenty of time for me to ‘accidentally’ run into you on our way to the diner.” I was pleased to find I wasn’t wobbly on my legs when Xu let go of me. I took a few tentative steps forward, and there was no dizziness.

“How did we first meet?” Eli asked me.

“Let’s say you’re an acquaintance of my mother, and I met you through her at a fundraiser in New York seven years ago for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her name is Deborah Golofsky Trelton.”

Eli said, “Samuel Parisi is an art dealer from New York visiting Mather. I’ll be wearing a Hawaiian shirt.”

Xu gave me a paper cup of water and two huge pills. “Ibuprofen,” he whispered.

“Thanks,” I said to Xu.

“Keep out of the way if a Magus tails Jake,” Louie said as I swallowed down the pills with the warm tap water. “The Magi are tightening the noose around that git.”

Eli frowned. “What made you change your mind about her knowing?”

“None of your damn business,” Louie said. “We have briefly discussed Zaliel and its Magi, no more, no less.”

Xu and Eli raised their eyebrows at each other, and Xu added in a long low whistle of astonishment.

Louie looked like he wanted to knock their heads together. But instead he said to me, “You need to go through the emporium to leave. Don’t forget the dreamcatcher gift for Tim to take back.”

I crushed the paper cup to toss it into the wastebasket. As I rolled down my sleeves, the taped down cotton ball on my left hand caught my eye, and I quickly ripped it off. A faint red puncture mark could be seen on my stinging skin.

Louie snapped at Eli, “Get Ms. Trelton to the emporium, then go find O’Keefe. Tell him to have your hair and beard both trimmed and dyed.”

Eli made a faint moan of protest.

Louie showed no sympathy. “If you were going deep undercover, I’d insist you shave your beard off despite the religious implications for you … though even shaved, Peter would recognize you on sight, but he’s not the problem here. If you want to talk to Jake tonight, you need that git to lower his guard. He may have heard rumors of the rabbi who meddles in matters of magical abuse. Now get moving, you two. Ms. Trelton, here’s the numbers you’ll need.” He pulled out a business card to hand over to me.

I read the card. It had no names on it, just AOX Investigations with a local phone number. On the back was written in pen the name O’Keefe with a number next to it.

Louie made an impatient gesture for us to get going.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “What the hell am I supposed to do if Jake tries to dose me or one of my coworkers again?”

“You’re resourceful,” Louie said. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

 *

Eli and I were getting on the private elevator when I smacked my forehead with my palm and said, “The bill.”

“What bill?” Eli said as he pressed the B button.

I had to look away from the elevator control panel as we descended—it was alive with different auras and glowing patterns superimposed on each other. I could see not only the familiar writhing silver, but also the silver-blue of Louie’s aura, as well as others I couldn’t quite discern. It all made my mind ache. “The medical bill for the antidote treatment.”

“Not to worry, Dorelai. I doubt you will have to pay anything. Louie funds Xu Laboratories, as well as Dr. Xu’s medical practice.”

My breath went out in a whoosh, like I’d just been jabbed in the gut. I sucked in another breath so that I could get out, “Louie paid for my treatment?”

Eli blinked, startled at my reaction. “Yes.”

Shit.” I put my hand on the smooth burgundy wall of the elevator to steady myself as my mind whirled at the implications. “Treatment has to have cost thousands.”

“It’s all right.” He reached out a hand as if he wanted to pat my arm, but stopped himself. “Louie finds the exchange of information and skills much more valuable than cash.”

I could take out a loan to pay Louie back, but I had a horrible suspicion that he would refuse the offered money; he’d very likely make a counter proposal that I join AOX as payback instead.

The elevator opened onto the basement service corridor, but neither of us made any move to exit. I just stood there with my hand pressed against the elevator wall.

“Wait … are you afraid that Louie is going to blackmail you? Then I have something to say that is only safe to speak of inside Knossos.” This time Eli did pat my arm, and tucked it in his to lead me out of the elevator so we could walk arm-in-arm down the corridor.

“From the very first day that I set foot in Mather,” Eli said, “I sensed that there was something very wrong about this city. I had volunteered to work at the Hope Shelter as well as do my duties as rebbe at the shul, and I found that many of the homeless I met were deathly afraid of something, though they refused tell me what it was. I knew nothing about Magi or Zaliel or magic when I began my investigation; all I knew was that I had a duty to discover what terrified the helpless.” Eli slid his arm out of mine. “I uncovered more than I bargained for … the Magi, and much worse.”

“Zaliel?” I said.

“Yes.” His voice was barely more than a whisper. He put a hand to his chin, and the magical aura from his palm lit his head and black fedora with an oak-colored light.

“Your poisoning. Did Zaliel have something to do with it?”

“Yes.” A whisper. “Never speak of this outside Knossos if you value your life, Dorelai. I was determined to see the investigation through to the end, and so I discovered Zaliel and what it was.” Eli’s voice rose in strength with each word he spoke. “It came to hate me, for I could not be bribed nor seduced nor frightened into backing down from what was right in the eyes of God. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad!”

As he shouted the words, Eli’s aura burned so brightly from his hands that I feared his flesh would catch on fire.

In response to his cry came the thunderous echo of what sounded like a stampede in the far corridors. The air felt like it was vibrating with the noise. There was also a musky smell that lingered in the air, like wet leather. Prickles ran up and down my arms as if we were being watched.

Then a snort of dirt-scented breath right behind me made me whirl around to look.

“Did you hear any of it, Rebbe Eli?” I said. There was nothing to be seen in the corridor and no smell or sounds gave away the presence of anything invisible.

Eli looked around. “Hear what?” He kept walking onward.

Whatever it had been that Eli had stirred up, it seemed to be gone now. Eli’s hands were also back to their normal brightness. “Never mind,” I said as I caught up with him. “I’m jumpy. Please finish.”

“I first crossed paths with Louie last September. He’d come to Mather to check on the construction of Knossos, and sought me out after he heard of the enemies I had made amongst the Magi. He tried to persuade me to leave Mather, but I refused. I found his visits to the shul to nag me about leaving Mather a nuisance.” Eli sighed. “Then the day before I was attacked, Louie came to see me at the shul to offer me his protection. He told me that if I agreed to work for him, he would have the right to interfere with anything the Magi tried against me. He feared I was in grave danger. But by then I’d discovered that he had once been a Magus for Zaliel.”

This news about Louie stunned me. His aura was nothing like the golden auras of the Magi.

Eli said, “I had heard rumors about terrible things Louie had done as a Magus, as well as claims that he had gained special magical powers through human sacrifice. There were also whispers that he had sold his soul to a fiend for Knossos Tower. The speed with which construction was moving forward did nothing to quell those suspicions.”

I recalled the bright floodlights that could be seen at night as the construction crews worked around the clock. It had only taken eight months for Knossos to be built. My coworkers and I had been amazed at how fast it had gone up.

“I vowed to have nothing more to do with Louie for fear of being corrupted by him. So when he made his offer in the shul that day,” Eli swallowed, “I spat in his face. He said nothing—though he was furious—and left.”

All too easily I could imagine the encounter, and winced.

“The nightmare dust,” Eli said, “broke me: body, mind, and spirit. Tom and Louie were able to heal the damage to my body, but they could not heal the rest. When I found out what had happened to Naomi in Boston, I … the pain was unbearable, and I knew that Zaliel and its Magi could not be allowed to go unchecked; they are tyrants. I went into the laby—” Eli stopped. From his expression, he was about to censor the story. “I had scorned Louie for being a magic wielder. I came out of the depths of Knossos healed and discovered I could … no, I don’t want to speak of it.”

I had to grit my teeth to keep from asking about Naomi or saying anything about the magical auras I could see around his hands. I had a suspicion that Eli had discovered he was now able to do magic.

“Many of the rumors about Louie,” Eli said, “are twisted versions of the truth. The Magi saw to it that I heard all the worst tales so that I would be certain to reject his protection before the attack. The arrangement he has with Zaliel only allows him to protect those directly in his employ. Louie is secretive and wily, but he does not have Zaliel’s relish for cruelty. I do not doubt he will do everything he can to wheedle you into what he wants you to do, but he won’t resort to force or blackmail. He prefers that those who work with him are there of their own free will.” Eli stopped in the corridor. “We’re here.”

We stood before the steel door for the emporium’s back room. Eli placed his hand on a large metal plate on the door, and the silver goop stuff stretched out to engulf his hand, then retreated. The door opened with a groan of metal hinges.

Ines must have heard us come in, for she appeared in the back room, saying, “I’ll take it from here, Rabbi Eli.”

Shalom,” Eli said, and shook my hand before disappearing back into the service corridors.

Ines shoved the steel door closed with her hip, then picked up a flat box on a nearby worktable to open it. I saw inside an elaborate dreamcatcher the size of my hand.

There was no magical residue on any part of it. The feathers were real bird feathers, the quartz crystals unpolished but cut smooth, the beads made of real turquoise instead of plastic. It was a work of art. “Tim will love it.”

“I’ll wrap it for you,” Ines said. She took it over to a small table with scissors and a rack of wrapping paper rolls. “Which one?”

I pointed to the shiny green paper.

Ines nodded her approval and swiftly wrapped the box for me, adding a white bow. She picked up the gift to tuck it under her arm, and I followed her out of the back room to the cash register.

“There’s no charge,” Ines said.

“But—”

“Louie insists.” Ines grinned. “Believe me, he won’t let you pay. Consider it a sympathy present for getting so ill.” She held out the gift box toward me, which made her silver bracelets jangle together. A faint scent of cloves lingered about her.

I hesitated in taking the shiny box from her.

Ines said, “Louie will be offended if you don’t accept it.” She nudged the box into my chest. Instinctively I grabbed the smooth wrapping paper to stop the nudging, giving her the chance to let go so that I held the box. “You’re Louie’s special client.”

That threw me off. While I shopped regularly at the emporium, I didn’t have the money for pricey items that would make me a “special client” in a shop owner’s eyes.

Then she winked at me.

No, surely she didn’t think Louie was interested in me … the skin of my face got so warm I was sure she saw me blush.

“He always shows up, when he can, to take over a few minutes before you come in,” Ines said. “Puts something special on the counter to work on for you to look at. Then leaves to go back to the management office as soon as you’re gone.”

That’s because he’s a manipulative sneak who was scoping me out as a potential employee. But I didn’t feel at liberty to talk about that. So instead I cleared my throat, and said, “It’s not … what I mean is, he’s sort of an acquaintance and he hasn’t—”

She tilted her head to the side, her thin brows drawing together.

Screw it, I wasn’t going to have her going around with this stupid misconception in her head. “Louie’s interest in me relates to a future business endeavor.”

Putting her hands to her cheeks, she said, “Oh, bother! My husband is always telling me I’m too much of a romantic at heart. I should have realized what Louie was actually up to. He can be so sneaky that way.”

The chimes sounded, and a secretary with sweat stains visible on her blouse rushed in. “Oh, Ines,” the woman cried out, “my boss forgot his wife’s birthday again. I’ve got to find something.”

I made my farewell to Ines and left the emporium.

*

As I walked down the basement hall past The Dive, I turned on my cell phone, and groaned at the time. I’d been gone from my desk way too long.

I didn’t see anything unusual in the hall or on the escalators, and I squinted before going through the Knossos lobby doors so that the glare of its outside shielding wouldn’t hurt my eyes. But even with my eyelids almost closed, the enhanced brightness was nigh painful as I walked through it.

Once past, I was able to open my watering eyes all the way again. A few of the pedestrians approaching Knossos had magical auras of various sorts, but it felt like prying to look too closely. But I did notice all of them had a strange golden collar of light around their necks that made me think of the watchful golden eyes on the buildings.

The collars were like the magical equivalent of pet collars.

My fingers squeezed the gift as I walked along the plaza, and the wrapping paper crinkled.

This was a great gift for Tim to take with him to Boston. I was really going to miss him; he’d taught me how to handle a software project bigger than myself. At my previous job with Mather College, I’d been the only programmer on the IT staff. Now thanks to Tim, I knew how to code for a project that required several full-time programmers to get it done.

From the plaza I couldn’t help noticing the sets of golden eyes that had been strategically placed to watch over Knossos. It couldn’t be a coincidence on Zaliel’s part.

The blare of car horns and exhaust fumes brought me back to reality. I was crossing the street between the plaza and the Chesterton too slow, and had to run to get onto the sidewalk.

The vendor was still there selling sunglasses, and he shone brighter than ever. So did the homeless woman. She sat on the curb near him, drinking from a carton of milk with a straw, with a paper-wrapped submarine sandwich on her lap.

I wanted to get closer to look at her features, but I knew people would typically avoid her, and I’d stick out if I didn’t. So I had to make do with studying them from the corner of my eye as I walked past to reach the lobby doors.

Maybe I ought to buy a pair of sunglasses from the vendor, since I could then wear them to stare around me with impunity.

Unless, of course, those awful gold eyes on the buildings could see through them.

*

I thought about Jake on the ride up in the Chesterton elevator. I was going to have to pretend nothing had happened to clue me in to his usage of nightmare dust. And while I could easily see him dosing me so that I’d be too sick to be team leader, I had a hard time imagining him wanting me dead. To him that would be too messy, too much of a risk. It was easier for me to believe he’d mindlessly upped the dosage he gave me (not bothering to research the side-effects of an overdose) when I didn’t get sick enough.

When the elevator doors opened for the eleventh floor, I had my expression under control and plodded to my cubicle, trying to look like someone who had been trapped for hours in a sales meeting.

From the laughter and loud talk coming from the direction of the break room, Tim’s farewell party was in full swing.

My teammates were away from their desks for the party. However, Ed must have arranged for a buddy in the cubicle farms to alert him when I got back, for I’d only just settled into my chair to put my purse and Tim’s gift away, when Ed showed up outside my cubicle, openly seething. He said, “So, how did the meeting with Mr. McDonough go?”

“Who?” I said like an idiot. “Oh, you mean Louie.”

“Yeah, Louie.” Ed leaned against my cubicle wall and folded his arms. “So, you’re on a first name basis with him?”

“I shop at his emporium. Since his management office is right next to it, I run into him a lot.” I cursed Louie in my mind for lying about wanting to consider buying our software.

Ed made a big deal of checking the time. “You were gone for over four-and-a-half hours.” He looked at the gift box. “I see you did some shopping while you were away.”

My cheeks got hot. He’d made me sound like I was a shopaholic dingbat. “That’s Tim’s farewell present. I’m late because Louie wouldn’t shut up. I had to waste hours on small talk before he’d get down to business.”

“You should have called sales as soon as it became clear he was a prospect.” Ed was working himself up. “You’re not capable of making a sale. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you queered any chance of a deal!”

“I’m sorry, Ed. But Louie insisted I be the one to talk to him first.”

“Jesus H. Christ,” he muttered to himself. Then louder, “Be in my office in five minutes. You’ll fill me and Patel in on the details of your meeting with Mr. McDonough.”

My stomach sank at that news. Patel was the sales manager for Granite Hills, so I was in for an unpleasant session of lying, a skill I sucked at.

*

The meeting with Ed and Patel was even more aggravating than I had dreaded. We went round and round, talking about Louie and the (imaginary) meeting I’d had with him, about the possibility that he might buy our expensive CorporateSystems software as well as our prototype software EmbezzleWatch.

Patel became obsessed with finding a way to smooth-talk Louie into buying CorporateSystems. From the way he was acting, the cash problems at Granite Hills had to be even worse than known.

Ed’s office soon stank like a locker room from the stress.

Then Ed got frustrated and tore into me again for meeting with Louie instead of calling sales. “I can’t believe you were so foolish as to agree to it, Dorelai!”

“There was no way for me to get out of it without looking like a complete jerk,” I said. “You know what a crappy liar I am.”

“Ed, please stop and think,” Patel said. “Let’s find the big picture here.”

Ed slammed his pen down on his desk and rocked back in his chair.

Patel said, “Mr. McDonough must trust and respect Dorelai an enormous amount, or he wouldn’t have spent so much time talking to her about her project. He doesn’t know me or my sales staff—we’re strangers to him.”

“Engineers make terrible salespeople,” Ed said.

Amen, I thought.

“And if she had refused to talk to him,” Patel said, “insisting he could only speak to sales, he would have assumed we had something to hide.” His cell phone jingled, and he nearly dropped it when he saw the number displayed. “Hello, this is Patel speaking.” He frantically gestured for the two of us to keep quiet.

“Mr. McDonough.” Patel grinned. “How nice to make your acquaintance.” He gave us a thumbs up.

I tried to rest by leaning back in the office chair I was sitting on, but the thing was hard vinyl cushions attached to a metal frame. Not comfortable. All I wanted to do was find a couch to pass out on—I could feel the crises of the last twenty-four hours beginning to drag me down.

How I wished Stephanie hadn’t gotten rid of that saggy programmers’ couch.

My head jerked back, startling me. I’d been nodding off.

Patel said, “Monday at noon in your management office would be fine. But Ms. Trelton has a very busy work schedule as a programmer. One of my sales engineers coul—”

Louie said something that cut him off.

Ed made neck slitting motions with his finger, indicating No, don’t give in to this guy.

Patel said, “But sir—”

Louie cut Patel off again.

“Oh, I didn’t realize that,” Patel said. “I’m certain Ms. Trelton would be happy to talk to her.”

Ed made chopping motions at his own neck, but Patel ignored him to listen intently to something Louie was saying.

Patel said, “I’ll need to check with Mr. Noonan about the EmbezzleWatch production schedule next week, but I’m sure we can get you in.”

Ed held up his hands before him like a guy about to be hit by a truck. As soon as Patel hung up, Ed said, “Are you nuts? We’re a software company, not a pretzel factory giving free tours. The EmbezzleWatch team doesn’t have time to schmooze with potential customers.”

“The customer is always right,” Patel said. He held up one finger. “One, the customer specifically wants Dorelai to talk to his system administrator.” He held up a second finger. “Two, the customer only wants five minutes to meet the EmbezzleWatch team here in our office. That’s all.”

The extent of Louie’s duplicity both fascinated and horrified me. He’d not only succeeded in giving me a cover story so that Ms. Adams could take her time in talking to me on Monday, he’d also finagled a way to get close to Jake and the scene of the poisonings.

Letting Louie in here would be like putting a cat into a hamster’s cage. If I hadn’t hated Jake so much for what he’d done, I would have felt sorry for him.

*

Staggering out of Ed’s office, I saw Jake standing half-in/half-out of Stephanie’s cubicle so he could talk to her and keep an eye on Ed at the same time. Clearly he’d been doing his best to find out what was going on in Ed’s office. Our words would have been difficult to make out unless he stood right before the door, but the muffled yelling would have been hard to miss.

I felt an overwhelming urge to seize the nearest keyboard and beat Jake with it as payback for what he’d done to us.

************** End of Chapter 4 *****************

Chapter 5 will go up next Tuesday. (Note: If you are reading this post after May 7, 2013, click here to go to Cubicle‘s main page on this website so you can find Chapter 5.)

You can forward this post or share it with friends if you think they’d enjoy it.

This e-book is available at iTunes, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Diesel, Sony, and other e-bookstores. These links could change over time, and a print version will come out in fall 2013, so click here to go to Cubicle’s main page to see what is available.

Until next time, L. M.

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic – Chapter 3: Magic and Medicine

My God, last week was awful, not only with the Boston Marathon bombings, but also the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas and the earthquake in China. A heartbreaking week….

My right eye has cleared enough that I can work at the computer for short time periods, so it’s time for me to get Chapter 3 up from Cubicles, Blood, and Magic. If you missed the earlier chapters, click here. This Tuesday we start with Dorelai suffering from poisoning. What follows is the entire third chapter from this contemporary fantasy novel. (This is a PG-13 book.)

Take care of yourselves this week. Stay safe.

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic: Dorelai Chronicles, Book One

 Lynn Kilmore

Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore

Copyright © 2012 by L. M. May

Published by Osuna Publishing

This story is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Chapter 3:

Magic and Medicine

As I stood there in the emporium aisle, trying to keep from throwing up as the ground seemed to bounce under me, my nose filled with the stink of my own clammy sweat, I heard Louie say, “Rabbi Eli, I know you want to help her, but this is beyond your skills to deal with. Alert Dr. Xu that we’ll be coming up, and get Mrs. Gomez in here. Tell them it’s an emergency.”

I saw Eli whirl around to run into the back room of the emporium, and I heard a door open—letting in the sound of machinery—and slam shut.

Louie began to approach me very slowly, the way one might approach a hurt squirrel on the plaza. “It is going to be all right, Dorelai.” He twitched the fingers of his left hand, and the glass of the emporium door became opaque. “You are safe here,” he said in a soothing tone. “No one will hurt you. I need you to focus as hard as you can on the emporium and on me. Don’t let a vision from the nightmare dust pull you under.” He was getting closer, almost close enough to touch me. “Stay still and let me look at your eyes.”

He placed his left fingers very gingerly around my right eye to hold it open so he could study it up close.

“Impossible.” He breathed out a rich scent of coffee as he spoke. “You ought to be—no, let me not plant unnecessary scenarios in your head.”

I held still, trying not to panic or pass out, as he continued to peer down at my eyes. He was so close that I was within his aura and could see that his irises were a weird sea grey in color. The ground steadied under my feet and the nausea subsided. It was as if Louie were able to weaken those symptoms from nightmare dust by touch.

I wondered what “nightmare dust” was slang for. I felt like I had fallen down the rabbit hole into Wonderland … and I was tired of fighting my way out. No matter what was about to happen, I wouldn’t have to face it alone. Louie would see it through with me.

I heard the door in the back room open, and Eli ran back in to join us, out of breath. He said between gasps, “Tom is prepping right now, and Ines is on her way.”

A light brush of calloused fingers on the right side of my face made me realize that Louie was moving his left hand around from my eye so that his palm covered the back of my neck where it met my skull. “Can you walk without falling over?” he asked me.

Eli didn’t seem to think it was strange that Louie had his warm palm smooshed up against my neck.

I took a tentative step. The ground didn’t rock under my toes, nor did I feel like throwing up on an empty stomach. But I was tired. So, so tired.

“Dorelai,” Louie said, “we need to get you upstairs to Dr. Xu. There’s a shortcut through the service corridors we are going to take. I’m going to keep my hand on your neck to help you keep your balance.”

I heard the door in the back room bang open. “Louie?” Ines’ voice, urgent.

“Right here,” Louie called out.

Ines burst out of the back room. Today she had braided her black hair and wore silver jewelry around her neck and wrists that jangled as she moved. She was gorgeous in a gypsy blouse and skirt.

She made to run over to help me, but Louie gestured with his free hand for her stay back.

Louie spoke to her as he kept his hand pressed to my neck while he walked beside me down the emporium aisle. “Call Ed Noonan at Granite Hills. Tell him that Dorelai is going to be delayed in returning to her desk, because I want to discuss with her whether the software she’s working on could be of use to us.” He made a sour face; he knew he’d be getting desperate sales calls from my company for months by using that cover story. “And if anyone comes looking for her, tell them she’s stuck in a meeting with me.”

Why bother with a cover story? What the hell is exactly going on here? I ought to care, but I’m so damn tired.

“Are you okay, honey?” Ines asked me. “Did someone hurt you?”

My throat was dry and it was going to take more energy to speak than I wanted to expend.

“Mrs. Gomez, the answers are obviously ‘No,’ and ‘Yes,'” Louie said. “Cover for Dorelai and make it stick. And tell O’Keefe I have an urgent job for him. He can get the details from Rabbi Eli if I’m still in with Dr. Xu.”

Ines scrambled for the emporium phone as Rabbi Eli led the way for us around the main display case and into the back room.

Here silver auras glowed upon three locked steel doors along the back wall. The small back room itself was crammed with worktables, collectibles, and wall shelves, but none of the merchandise had an aural glow to it.

The door to the service corridor was so thick with silver stuff that it was up to Eli’s wrist when he twisted the doorknob open.

The machinery rumble was too loud. I plugged my ears with my fingers (which was rather awkward since Louie’s left palm was still stuck to my neck like a remora) as we exited into the fluorescent-lit service corridor. We were close to a double-set of grey doors with yellow warning signs about the dire hazards of death by electrocution or burns.

As we walked past those doors, I could feel the vibrations of the building’s air conditioning and heating machinery through the floor.

We made a right turn at an intersection of empty corridors, then a left, the machinery racket fading into the distance. I unplugged my ears, and thought I could hear the echo of hooves walking on the grey-painted concrete floors.

I began to glance behind in the direction the echoes were coming from, but Louie’s suddenly firm grip on my neck stopped me. He said, “We have to keep moving.”

We reached the private elevator.

Eli placed his palm against a rectangular plate in the wall next to the elevator’s closed doors, and the plate oozed a glowing silver goo that engulfed his hand.

I could not be certain, but I thought Eli couldn’t see or feel the goo-like stuff on him.

“Ah, yes, that reminds me,” Louie said sotto voce, and I had a sudden weird conviction he was checking between my shoulder blades to see if I had one of those silver blob-things. “Bloody hell,” he muttered.

I noticed that Rabbi Eli did have a silver blob-thing on his back.

Unfortunately, Louie caught the intensity of my stare at Eli, and raised his eyebrows at me. “See something?” he said to me in challenge.

Flustered, I pretended that I hadn’t heard him. The elevator doors slid open, to show an interior painted in burgundy with brass trim.

After Louie and I joined him, Eli jabbed button 18. Top floor of Knossos. I noticed that the elevator had not only buttons for 2 through 18, but also B, SB, and an unmarked button. No L or 1 button, though.

Eli seemed oblivious to the silver patterns that then filled the entire elevator space before it rose. The patterns crawled all over Louie’s and Eli’s clothes and skin (I could not see them on myself), as if they were checking out our identities. And the tight space smelled of wool and sandalwood, thanks to my companions.

As the elevator rose, Louie said to me, “I apologize for asking questions now, but I fear circumstances beyond our control make it necessary to do so.”

“Surely it can wait until after the antidote is given?” Eli said.

“No, Rabbi Eli, it cannot,” he said.

That made Eli go pale.

In the soothing tone of earlier, Louie said, “Dorelai, have you received any death threats?”

Death threats?” I said. “Of course not!”

As the elevator dinged, signaling our arrival at the eighteenth floor, Louie lightly kept his fingers on my neck as we exited, with Rabbi Eli following right behind. We stepped out into a corridor that reminded me of a hospital—a strong stink of antiseptic, and tile floors scrubbed clean.

“Is there anyone you can think of who would wish to do you harm?” Louie asked me.

“No,” I said, then hesitated as I thought about the inky specks in the coffee Jake had handed to me this morning. And then there was Dereck, but the manila envelope had shown up before I dumped him, not after.

The corridor had bare walls and closed steel doors. Louie escorted me to the right, down to the end, where a large silver panel lay above the lock to the steel door.

The doorplate read, Xu Laboratories.

“You’re thinking of someone,” Louie said to me. “Let me reassure you that we are not police and so you need not worry about making a false accusation.” He placed his free hand on the panel. As with Eli, the panel oozed around his hand to engulf it, then let go. A snick, and the door swung open on its own. “This is a private treatment area we have with Dr. Xu. Extraordinarily useful in an emergency.”

We entered a short corridor, which had a medical consultation room on the right, and a closed swinging door on the left. From behind the swinging door I heard someone turn on a faucet. The corridor ended on another steel door (closed) with a silver panel like that for the laboratory door.

An unknown voice barked out from behind the swinging door, “In here!”

I heard running water hit the bottom of a sink.

Eli pushed open the swinging door to stick his head in. “Tom, it’ll just be a moment before we bring the patient in.”

“Yo, brah, you look totally righteous,” the guy said. “Those gnarly old nightmare stains are gone from under your eyes. Let me buy you a brew to celebrate.”

“I’m here with the patient,” Eli said.

“Oh,” Tom said. The surfer accent was gone, replaced with his staccato doctor accent. “I’m almost scrubbed up. Bring her in when she’s ready.”

There was a hint of teasing in his voice as Eli said, “Okay, dude.” He slipped out from the swinging door to stand next to Louie, and a worried crease formed across his forehead as he watched me.

“Dorelai,” Louie said, “if you can give us a name, or names, please do so. You may be … out of it for a while once treatment starts.”

“Jake,” I said, and stared at the ground. “My coworker, Jake Drummond. I think he’s been putting something in the coffee he makes us these past few weeks. Both Tim and Monica have been very sick with bouts of debilitating nightmares.”

I know that git,” Louie said to Eli. “He’s the careless sort who would give someone an accidental overdose. Tell O’Keefe to find out what the bloody hell Jake’s been up to. This would also explain why the Chesterton is under such close observation today. Bloody prat, he’s gotten not only himself in a mess, he’s—” and with an effort that made his mouth twist into a bitter line, Louie stopped himself from saying whatever else was on his mind.

The way Louie regarded me with concern made me think that Jake had somehow gotten me in trouble. And that talk about the Chesterton—Louie had to have been talking about glowing blonde guy and his glowing pals.

Glowing blonde guy might have gotten on my bus today because he was observing me.

Eli pushed open the swinging door for us. With a gentle pressure on my neck, Louie guided me into the medical room.

Instead of the laid-back surfer dude I had expected to find, there was a Chinese-American guy—who couldn’t be much older than thirty—fiercely scrubbing his hands and arms with soap at the sink. He wore a medical coat with ‘Dr. Tom Xu’ stitched upon it.

Upon our entrance, Dr. Xu looked up at us as he washed the soap off with hot water. His gaze locked onto the sight of Louie with his hand on my neck, and I thought Xu mouthed the word “Shit” as he turned the water off with his elbow.

“Hello, Ms. Trelton,” Xu said in the cheery tone doctors liked to use when something seriously bad was going on, “I’m Dr. Xu. Rabbi Eli, get her purse off her shoulder and toss it on that chair. Make sure her cell phone is off.” He shook his hands to dry them, then slipped on medical gloves. “Ms. Trelton, if you and, er, Louie could go over to that counter there and quickly fill out the forms attached to that clipboard, we can get started.”

Louie turned his head away so that he wasn’t looking over my shoulder while I filled out the medical history form as quickly as I could. “Rabbi Eli,” he said, “go and wait in the consultation office for O’Keefe.”

“Understood.” Eli came over and gently put a hand on my nearest shoulder. Deep lines of sorrow formed around his mouth and eyes. “I want you to know that Dr. Xu is the best there is. He completely cured my case of nightmare dust poisoning last year. You’re in good hands and will be feeling better soon. Shalom, Dorelai.”

I put my hand over his where it lay on my shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze. “Shalom, Rebbe Eli.”

Eli gave me a warm smile at those words, patted my shoulder, then left the room.

From the corner of my eye I saw Xu pick up what looked to be high-tech goggles off the medical cart and put them on over his head. Then he picked up a needle and a blood sample tube to prep them.

“Too much time is passing,” Louie said next to my ear, making me jump. “Finish your bloody paperwork.”

I’d gotten so used to his hand on my neck I’d completely forgotten about his presence.

I went back to work on the second page of the medical history while Louie said, “Xu, I’m putting up a sound shield.” Out of his suit pocket he removed a smooth granite stone and squeezed it in his right hand.

A weak white light (mixed with flickers of Louie’s own aural color) flared between his fingers, then expanded out in a spherical wave until the examination room was contained within it. When he dropped the stone down onto the ceramic tiles, I saw that faint squiggly lines of white light went out from the stone to create the shield around us.

I was getting so used to seeing things that the light show was interesting instead of alarming.

Louie said to Xu, “She’s had an extremely anomalous response to the nightmare dust. The dosage amount is off the charts, but so far she’s only shown signs of nausea, exhaustion, and dizziness.”

“What’s your expert opinion on what is going on with Ms. Trelton? Is this a specific immunity to nightmare dust, or a generalized immunity response?”

“Generalized,” Louie said. “No question in my mind about it.”

It sounded like they were talking in code to keep me in the dark about something.

“The high intensity of her body’s reaction to exposure is unprecedented,” Xu said.

“When I discovered she’d been given the overdose,” Louie said, “I began emergency treatment immediately.”

I was done with everything but the last piece of paperwork on the clipboard—the medical consent form. My grip on the pen got so tight that I could feel every bump and ridge on its plastic surface.

Louie picked up on my hesitation. “Stop dawdling and sign the damn thing.”

“Now wait just a minute,” I said. “I have some questions that I want answered first.”

“You can ask them after you sign the bloody form.”

“Before.”

“Dorelai, you’re so crammed full of nightmare dust right now it’s a bloody miracle you aren’t a vegetable. Sign the bloody damn form or we’ll just wait until you pass out, then save your life.”

Louie meant it. I skimmed the form, signed it, and flung the pen down. “There,” I said. “You satisfied now?”

“Xu’s the stickler for consent forms,” Louie said, “not I.”

“Ms. Trelton,” Xu said, “if you could get on the examination table, please?” He added, trying to sound casual about it, “Louie can keep his hand on the base of your skull since it is helping to minimize your symptoms.”

There was a beige examination table covered with white paper sheets; right next to it was an IV stand. I saw that the wall closest to the table had an oxygen supply line. There was also a large cart with medical-looking equipment on its shelves, as well as a small surgical tray on wheels with various medical instruments like syringes and scalpels.

The paper crackled under my palms as I struggled onto the chilly examination table, and Louie kept his sweaty left hand against my neck as if I were in danger of passing out if he took it away.

I lay back upon the table. It was in a semi-recline position, so that my head and torso were higher than my feet. Like all doctor’s offices, this one was too cold for my taste.

Xu paused for a half-second in thought, then came over to me with the prepped needle and a cotton ball that stank of rubbing alcohol. “Roll up your sleeves,” he said. “Let’s get a blood sample.”

I rolled up my sleeves so that they were tight above my elbows, and Xu prodded the soft skin of my inner elbows until he found a vein he liked. He pricked through my skin with the needle and drew out my blood.

Once done, Xu tossed the used needle on the tray and held the blood sample tube between his fingers. He yanked the goggles down over his face to cover his eyes, and the lenses began to glow with a weak turquoise light as he tipped the tube back and forth, staring intently at the blood sample.

Through the glass I saw black specks float to my blood’s surface.

Louie’s hand clenched involuntarily on my neck at the sight of the specks.

Xu kept tilting the sample tube back and forth, back and forth. It was hypnotic to watch. Then he shoved the goggles off his eyes so that they pushed the black hair of his bangs straight up. He labeled the blood sample and slipped it into a test tube rack on the medical cart.

Next he grabbed a glass slide with white paper glued to it, and pricked my thumb so that he could smear a drop of blood in the center of the paper, then put the slide on the tray.

Xu kept making hmm noises to himself as he checked my blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, and lungs. Then he pulled the goggles back down to cover his eyes as he said, “Ms. Trelton, please look up at me and open your eyes as wide as you can. Try not to blink. And recollect for me, if you can, any times you’ve had vivid nightmares these last few months.”

The doctor leaned forward to study my eyes through his goggles—which not only glowed a weak turquoise but also magnified his eyes—making more hmms to himself, as I told them about having no nightmares, and then about the black specks I’d seen in my coffee and the blue specks in Monica’s.

Then I mentioned the flood of black specks from the manila envelope last night, and Louie’s palm twitched as it lay against my skin; whether in surprise or anger, I couldn’t tell. He was too good at keeping control of his expression.

My eyes were feeling dry and itchy by the time Xu was done staring into them.

“Thank you, Ms. Trelton,” he said, and pulled back, pushing the goggles up on his forehead. He grabbed the glass side off the tray to study it and then held it up for me to see.

Strange black streaks, like those an ink spill might make, radiated out from my bloodstain upon the paper.

“I’m sorry,” Xu said, “but you’ve been given a major overdose of nightmare dust. You’re very, very fortunate to not have had the typical response to it. We need to get started with treatment right away. Louie,” he said, way too casually, “I’d like to call Knecht in from downstairs to assist.”

“Good God, no, absolutely not,” Louie said. “This case and its treatment must be kept completely confidential. If we’re seeing this sort of immune reaction now by her, once she’s pumped full of antidote I can’t guarantee what she might let slip.”

“I see.” Xu frowned as he put the slide back on the tray. “Well, Ms. Trelton, I’m going to have Louie here give you some of the answers you’ve been asking for while I prepare the antidote treatment.”

I watched Xu roll over a digital blood pressure monitor as Louie said to me in a rather dry voice, “This wasn’t how I originally intended to bring you into the fold. I’ll come straight to the point. Nightmare dust is a magical poison.”

“Bullshit!” I said as Xu wrapped the monitor cuff tight around my right arm and got the readout going.

“That’s your father the professor talking,” Louie said, “not you. Spare me a dull regurgitated speech of his. I’m sure you couldn’t help but notice the magical shielding around Knossos—silver-blue with gold specks that flicker in and out?”

My body flinched at the description of Knossos.

Louie gave me a grim smile. “God only knows what else you’ve been seeing around Mather. Later, you and I are going to have quite a number of cozy chats about the implications. But let us return to the pressing matter at hand … your poisoning. Nightmare dust is a magical poison. Mather Hospital cannot treat you for it, but Dr. Xu can.”

I lay there, all too aware of Louie’s palm pressed up against my neck, and tried to take it all in. All the auras I’d seen, all the strange people and things.

“Fine,” I said to Louie. “Assuming I accept the premise that I’ve been magically poisoned with nightmare dust, what does that poison do to people?”

Xu muttered something under his breath that I couldn’t make out as he rubbed the top of my left hand with chilly alcohol to clean my skin.

“In small quantities,” Louie said, “the poison causes nightmares, loss of appetite, and insomnia. A larger dose triggers violent hallucinations in the victim.”

Xu jabbed into the skin of my left hand to insert the catheter into a vein, and I winced.

Instead of continuing with his explanation, Louie watched Xu prep the catheter. Only once Xu was done did he continue. “A severe overdose usually results in insanity … even death.”

The earlier question about death threats took on a whole new meaning. “Am I going to die?” I said.

Louie leaned down very close to me, so close that I could feel his warm breath as he spoke next to my ear. “No,” he said. “I’ve survived an overdose, as well as Rabbi Eli.” There was a flicker in his eyes—a bad memory. “And you have not had the typical reaction to the poison, but you need the antidote to clear your bloodstream of it.” He tapped my neck with his fingers. “I’m doing magic right now to keep the dust out of the blood flow to your brain.”

Xu flipped on the switches for a pump-like device on the medical equipment cart.

“Dorelai,” Louie said, “you know how a vaccine can trigger an antibody response so that a person can fight off the disease itself later on?”

“Of course.” My voice was wobbly from nervousness and I was sure Louie could feel my skin getting clammy.

“You were given a massive overdose of a magical poison,” Louie continued, “and it has woken up a latent resistance to magic within you. A sort of antibody response.”

I heard Xu mutter to himself in what sounded like surfer lingo as he connected the tubing from the IV bag into the pump device, then ran out another line of tubing from the pump toward my catheter.

Louie said, “This is a permanent transformation that is occurring, and normally it would take a few months for all the changes to become complete, but … the antidote for nightmare dust is another magical substance, one that you will have to be given in a significant quantity. Your ‘antibody response’ is very likely to get kicked into overdrive, so that your transformation speeds up. But even if you refuse treatment, you won’t be able to stop what is happening to you.”

Shit, that meant that the weirdness I’d seen today was only the beginning.

“And there’s something else,” Louie said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if wandering in and out of Knossos’ shielding a few times today gave you a hard shove forward in the changes. Not to mention the minor, but very real, reaction I may be triggering by doing magic on you. Dr. Xu, how are we doing?”

“Everything is prepped,” Xu said. “Ms. Trelton, what Louie described is the most likely side effect of the antidote treatment. But the risk of injury from a blood clot is much greater than those risks associated with the antidote. Do I have your permission to begin treatment?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then let’s get started.” Xu stepped on a foot pedal for the examination table so that my head lowered to a parallel position with the floor. “There’s a saline solution in the IV bag. The infusion pump will mix in the dust antidote with the saline,” he said as he traced the tubing coming out of the pump to my catheter, “and inject it into your bloodstream.”

Something about lying prone didn’t agree with me. I felt dizzy and sweaty, as if I’d been spinning around in circles until I fell over.

Xu began to let saline fluid run into my hand, checking the flow rate and functioning of the pump. Then he checked the digital readout of my blood pressure, and studied my face and left hand. “How do you feel?”

“Lousy.” My skin ached around the catheter. “Dizzy.”

“Let me know if there’s any pain,” Xu said as he adjusted the pump dials, and I saw blue specks appear in the fluid running in the tubing from the pump to my hand.

I tried to relax and breathe deeply as the specks approached me.

Louie stared at my left hand as the blue specks entered into the catheter to go into my bloodstream. Both men were tense, silent, waiting.

My left hand felt cold, as if it’d been dipped into ice water. The coldness was spreading up my wrist toward my elbow.

“I’ll tell you when to take your hand away,” Xu said to Louie.

The coldness was up to my shoulder.

Xu pulled down his goggles to check out my eyes and face. My chest felt like it’d been packed with ice. It was as if I were being slowly frozen to death by a curse that started in my left hand and then spread all across my body.

After a time that seemed to drag on and on, even my feet felt ice cold.

Now,” Xu said.

Louie took his hand away.

The room blurred before my eyes.

“Here it comes,” Xu said.

I closed my eyes to try and fight the intense nausea I felt. My chest, neck, and face felt so icy cold. Involuntarily my body began to shake.

Someone—Louie—grabbed my right hand to squeeze it tight. “Open your eyes,” he said. “Don’t let yourself pass out.”

Despite the whirling sensation in my head, I opened my eyes. The almost unbearable brightness of the aural colors made me cry out.

The sound shield was like an amorphous glowing white jellyfish with us in its belly; the delicate threads that wove the shielding to the stone were lace-like. But the shield was dwarfed in brightness, for Louie now burned as bright a silver-blue as Knossos itself. And around Xu’s hands I could see turquoise auras rise like candle flames.

The antidote specks themselves glowed like tiny blue stars in the tubing.

“She’s holding steady,” Xu said. “Saturation point should happen within the next few minutes.”

The infusion pump itself had a weak turquoise glow that I hadn’t been able to see before that was the same aural color as Xu’s hands.

“Did Xu build it?” I blurted out.

“Build what?” Louie said. He caught the direction of my stare at the pump and let go of my hand. “Yes, he designed it to his own specifications for treating certain kinds of poison. He also came up with a dust antidote variation that works four times faster than what you saw Jake dose Monica with. Xu’s research is going save countless lives once we obtain permission to share that knowledge.” From the way Louie’s jaw muscles bulged, something about the permission process made him seethe to think about it.

Xu bent close with his goggles on to examine my eyes. The brightness of the goggles’ turquoise lenses made me squint.

“Keep your eyes open,” Xu said.

“I can’t,” I said. “Your lenses are too bright. Turn them down.”

Xu did a double take. “What did you say?”

“Your lenses glow turquoise,” I said, “like your hands. They’re so bright they hurt my eyes.”

“So that’s what you meant,” Xu said to Louie. There was fear in his voice. “If Zaliel finds out—”

It is not going to find out,” Louie said. He gave slight shake of his head, then jerked his chin at me to remind Xu that I was listening to everything they said. “Not until it’s much too late to do anything. Nothing we hear from her or see her do is going to leave this room.”

My whole body felt cold from the antidote, making me shiver, but the dizziness had faded. “W-who’s Zaliel?”

Louie put a hand over my mouth. “Shush.” His skin had a comforting scent of sandalwood. “That’s a name you’d be wise to pretend you hadn’t heard.” He lifted his hand away.

I sputtered. “But—”

“Not. One. More. Word.” Louie scowled. “When you come to work for me, you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know. But until then, mind your own bloody business and concentrate on getting well.”

That riled me, and I began to sit up to make it easier to chew out Louie for his high-handedness, but Xu pressed a hand on my left shoulder to stop me. “Lie down, Ms. Trelton, you’re not done with the treatment. You need to hoard your strength. As for my goggles, I’m sorry, but there is no way for me to make them less bright. Please open your eyes and endure the brightness as best you can.”

“This conversation isn’t over,” I said to Louie as Xu examined my eyes. “I won’t have you holding back information from me. I’ve been poisoned, my coworkers have been poisoned, and I want to know how Jake got hold of this crap in the first place.”

“All in good time,” Louie said.

Xu pulled back from my eyes, which were blinded with afterimages of turquoise lights floating before them, and I forgot what I was going to say to Louie in the aftermath of blinking and eye watering. Xu pressed his gloved fingers against my neck to feel my pulse. “You’re doing fine, Ms. Trelton. It won’t be long until you are well again.”

A burst of warmth flushed my scalp and face, to spread down my neck and body.

“Shut off the antidote flow,” Louie said. “I think she’s passed a threshold.”

Xu flicked a switch on the pump, and the blue specks stopped their flow from it. Xu said to Louie, “Her eyes—”

“Yes, I see it.”

“See what?” I said.

“I’m slowing down the saline drip,” Xu said, twisting a knob. He stared intently at my eyes. “I’ve never seen antidote dust break down so swiftly, dude.” He got excited.

“Take the next blood sample,” Louie said to him, “and I’ll get them both in the analyzer right now.”

What is going on?” I said. “Dr. Xu, are you always this coy?”

No!” Xu said, stung. “I most certainly am not, it’s—”

“Clever approach, Dorelai,” Louie said, “but Dr. Xu doesn’t have the information you want.” He gave me a mocking smile. “I do. And I want to run a few more tests before I give you answers … so you’ll just have to be patient and wait.”

We’ll see about that, I thought. Sooner or later, I’ll either find someone who will tell me what I want, or I’ll figure out a means to make you talk, Louie.

My body felt warm again. The tug of the catheter needle under my skin was unpleasant.

Xu got another glass tube off the tray, and drew the blood sample. He held it up before us to rock the capped tube gently back and forth while staring at it with his goggles.

“Can’t see any dust or antidote traces,” Xu said. He handed the tube to Louie.

Louie grabbed the other blood sample, and easily passed through his created sound shield without making a mark in it.

I was feeling much better, if tired. No more dizziness or nausea. “What just happened to me?” I said. “And who’s Zaliel? And why did Louie say ‘it’ instead of he or she?”

“Your body is breaking down the antidote much quicker than is usually seen. Beyond that I don’t want to say anything until the test results come back.” Xu grimaced as he took off his goggles. “As for the Z dude, you’re going to have to work out with Louie what you need to know. Let’s check your vitals.” He stuck a digital thermometer in my mouth before I could ask another question.

*

I found the wait for the blood test results interminable. Xu wouldn’t take me off the IV until it was confirmed that the dust was gone from my bloodstream, even though my vital signs were all back to normal.

Finally, it occurred to me to ask for Rabbi Eli, and to my relief Dr. Xu complied in fetching him to join us in the examination room. I suspected Xu was relieved to have someone else to distract me while he concentrated on the medical notes he was making.

As soon as he passed through Louie’s sound shielding and caught sight of me, Eli smiled. “You’re looking much better, Dorelai.”

“Thank you,” I said while trying not to stare at him. His hands, like Xu’s, had a magical aura rising from them. Only Eli’s color reminded me of oak tree bark.

Eli pulled up a stool on squeaky wheels to sit next to me. Up close I could see a faint sprinkling of dirt on his sleeves, and there was a whiff of wet clay almost hidden by the scent of wool.

“You mentioned that you were once poisoned with nightmare dust,” I said. “Would you be willing to tell me about it?”

Eli’s hands clenched on his lap, and I became aware of a pale spot on his left finger where a wedding ring might have once been. There was also clay stuck under his nails.

I said, “If it’s too painful—”

“Parts of it are, yes,” Eli said. “But I’ll tell what I can. And … it would be wise for you to know how dangerous things could be. There is one who—”

Brah,” Xu said, “Louie wants no tales of the sharks in the kai.”

To my annoyance, the two of them shared a glance very similar to the one Xu and Louie had shared after Xu let slip about Zaliel.

I fantasized for a few seconds about wringing Louie’s neck when he returned for sabotaging my chances to find out what the hell was going on.

“Ah, yes,” Eli said in an undertone to himself. To me he said, “I moved to Mather from New York with my wife to be rebbe of a small shul here. That was about a year-and-a-half ago. Not long after Sukkot last year, on a night when I was working late in my office at the shul, I found a small gift-wrapped box on my desk. When I opened it, I was covered in nightmare dust.” He closed his eyes and his mouth twisted. It seemed to take an effort for him to open his eyes again to look at me. “The dust trapped me in hallucinations of death and pain within the shul all night long. Two of the elders, along with my wife, found me collapsed upon the shul’s carpet the next morning. They called an ambulance to take me to the hospital, and I was diagnosed as having a reaction from cocaine usage.”

“Wait a moment,” I said. “So nightmare dust can be mistaken for cocaine?”

“No,” Eli said. “I was given the dust, and while out of my mind from the induced madness, I was dosed with cocaine. Vials, both full and empty, were hidden about my office to be found by the police.”

A nasty chill ran through me at the look in Eli’s eyes. “Why would anyone do that to you?”

“I asked too many questions, talked too much about things that others wanted hidden, and made enemies.” Eli interlaced his shaking fingers. “Louie tried to warn me of the danger I was in, but I thought he was no better than a dybbuk.”

“But surely the police—”

Eli gave a hollow laugh. “Unless you want to be brought up on cocaine charges, I strongly advise you not to mention anything about magic and nightmare dust to them.”

“If they knew…” my voice trailed away at Eli’s expression. “They know.”

“No, only a few,” Eli said. “The ones you can’t trust. I know you will want to see justice served against your coworker for the dust he gave you and the others, but if you go from Knossos to the nearest police station you won’t be taken seriously—except by those who’ll shut you up as quickly as they can. Mather has its own shadowy world of magic, and for those who rule that world concepts like ‘due process’ and ‘trial by jury’ don’t exist. Secrecy is the dictator of all.”

Brah, stop it!”

Why?” Eli snapped at Xu. “How is she supposed to keep safe if she doesn’t know the dangers that Zaliel and its ilk pose?”

“Too much knowledge at the wrong time is as dangerous as too little, brah. Louie will know the right mix for her.” To me he said, “Please drop the subject of Zaliel for now, Ms. Trelton.”

I glared at Xu, and then realized that he was genuinely worried.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll see what Louie has to say about Zaliel. But I want to hear the last of Rabbi Eli’s story.” I tried to relax, shifting around and making the paper crackle as I rolled onto my right side. I gingerly laid my catheter-punctured left hand on my hip, then said to Eli, “What happened to you at the hospital?”

“I’m told I was raving and screaming,” Eli said. “So they had me put under restraints.” He pushed his glasses back up his nose while glancing at Xu. “Once Tom and Louie heard the news about my hospitalization, Tom got himself smuggled into my room. I came out of the hallucinations to find him over my hospital bed holding a syringe; he’d given me an antidote injection to bring me back to consciousness. Then he and the others smuggled me out of the hospital to do a full antidote treatment.”

I frowned. “And the cocaine charges?”

“Louie … got the charges dropped,” Eli said. He stroked his beard with his hands. “But my reputation within my shul was damaged beyond repair, unless I was willing to risk their safety and mine by telling them things that had to remain hidden. So I allowed myself to be removed as rebbe and left the shul.”

“But your wife,” I burst out with, and stopped.

Eli’s gaze slid away from mine to look at the tiles. “She refused to believe the few things I could tell her, and demanded I give her a get.” He rubbed at the bare spot on his ring finger, then looked back at me. “I loved her, so I did.”

The devastation in his voice made me hesitate in pushing further with my line of questioning. So I thought about the clay I’d seen, and asked, “Do you happen to do gardening or pottery?”

A ghost of a smile came to Eli’s lips. “Pottery. I like to shape clay to relax. Louie even sells pieces of mine in the emporium when they’re good enough. After I recovered from my poisoning, I took a job at the Hope Shelter for the homeless.” The smile faded away. “I keep an eye out for poisoning cases and other signs of magical abuse.”

Louie—the cause of Xu and Eli refusing to tell me things—came back into the examination room.

Time to drag some answers out of him whether he liked it or not. “Louie, what the hell am I supposed to do about being poisoned if I can’t go to the police, and why are they shielding Rabbi Eli’s poisoner?”

************** End of Chapter 3 *****************

Stay tuned for Chapter 4 next Tuesday. (Note: If you are reading this post after April 30, 2013, click here to go to Cubicle‘s main page on this website so you can find Chapter 4.)

This e-book is available at iTunes, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Diesel, Sony, and other e-bookstores. These links could change over time, and a print version will be coming out for certain by winter 2013, so click here to go to Cubicle’s main page (if you’re reading this months after April 23, 2013) to see what is available.

Feel free to forward this post or share the link to Cubicle’s main page if you think a friend would enjoy the story.

All the best, L. M.

Next story post will be next Tuesday, April 23rd

Just a quick post that Chapter 3 of Cubicles will go up on Tuesday, April 23rd. Monday night I had a rash erupt from my right eyelid to my scalp, and I discovered today that it’s a shingles breakout triggered by stress, not the allergy rash I though it was. I’m having to use an ointment that blurs my vision in the right eye to help protect that eye from the risk of secondary infection–so I’m actually writing this up using just one eye, not two, and that gets tiring very quickly.

I’m very, very fortunate. A little bit lower, and the right eye socket and eye would have had lesions.

It’s all minor stuff compared to what happened Monday in Boston. One of the women killed was a student at the university I went to, Boston University. I keep hearing new stories about the awful injuries from the explosion. I know the American Red Cross is taking donations.

Take care of yourselves and each other, and I’ll see you next Tuesday.

Cheers, L. M. May

 

Story Post Delayed due to News Out of Boston

Hello, I’m holding off on posting the next chapter of Cubicles until at least tomorrow (though more likely Wednesday). I lived in Boston for four years, so I’d rather not post tonight. Let us remember the dead and the injured right now, and those EMTs, police officers, firefighters, doctors, and nurses working at this moment to deal with the carnage.

Peace, L. M. May

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic – Chapter 2: Poisoned

Welcome to another Tuesday!  If you missed Chapter 1 of Cubicles, Blood, and Magic, click here. This Tuesday we continue where we left off–Dorelai and Dereck on a really bad date. What follows is the entire second chapter from this contemporary fantasy novel. (PG-13, folks.) Cheers.

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic: Dorelai Chronicles, Book One

Lynn Kilmore

Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore

Copyright © 2012 by L. M. May

Published by Osuna Publishing

This story is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Chapter 2: Poisoned

As Dereck and I walked to our reserved table at La Belle—Dereck bellowing into his ear clip—the alluring scent of grilled steak made my nose twitch, soft violin music tickled my ears, and the flickering of candlelight relaxed my mind.

I couldn’t help noticing an elderly couple snuggled up next to each other, more into each other than the half-eaten plates of roast duck before them. The gentleman cradled his wife’s veined hand in his, then actually kissed it with a loud smack.

How I wished I had someone who’d kiss my knuckles that way.

Dereck remained engrossed in fighting with his law partner on the phone.

A wave of dizziness surged through me and I had to grab onto the high back of my dining chair for support. Our waiter noticed, and nodded in sympathy as he pulled my chair out for me.

Once the menus were handed out, Dereck hung up on his law partner and came back to reality.

“So, what are the specials?” he asked the waiter.

As the waiter told us his name (Kevin) and rattled off the specials of the night, my gaze kept straying to the listed salmon.

I always got a salad when eating out. Always.

But a plate of blackened salmon, with herbed wild rice and grilled mushrooms, onions, and zucchini, made my stomach rumble just thinking about it.

“—and chocolate lava cake for dessert,” Kevin said. He flipped open his order book. “So, madam, what would you like?”

“The blackened salmon,” I said. “And the lava cake for dessert.”

“Excellent choice,” Kevin said, while Dereck frowned at me. I never ordered dessert. Never. Between the rich dessert and not ordering a salad, I’d surprised him.

Dereck said, “Bring two forks for the dessert.”

No way. That dessert, the first I’d allowed myself on a non-special occasion in years, was mine.

“Bring a second lava cake for Dereck,” I said to Kevin.

Kevin nodded. “Very good.”

Dereck made a hnnnh noise in protest.

Kevin rolled his eyes in derision behind Dereck’s back. If it weren’t for the wedding band Kevin was wearing, I might have tried picking him up.

I said to Dereck, “You can always take the leftover cake home if you can’t eat it all.”

Dereck bristled at my words. He said to Kevin, “I’ll have the New York strip, medium rare. Baked potato. Dinner salad.”

I waited until Kevin was out of earshot. “Look, I’ve come to realize I’ve been too narrow in my choices for meals. I want to experience what the chef here is renowned for.”

“But you’re…”

I tried to fill his awkward pause. “If I can’t finish the cake, I’ll take it home to enjoy tomorrow after dinner.”

“But,” Dereck pursed his lips, searching for the right words for whatever was bothering him, “their cake has so many calories.”

My shoulders tensed. Unbidden, I thought about my bony frame and lack of muscle tone, and Dereck’s past admiring comments about how “spare” I was.

Dereck was worried I was in danger of going on an eating spree and getting fat.

I made my fingers unclench from around my butter knife. Stabbing him for being a jerk would not solve my problems.

But dumping him definitely would. “You don’t have to worry about me getting fat,” I said to him, “because I’m never going to be your lover.”

Dereck choked on his water, spitting out a mouthful onto the tablecloth.

Kevin hurried over to help wipe up the mess while Dereck coughed from water going down his windpipe.

I took up my napkin from my lap and tossed it onto the table. “I’m leaving,” I said to Dereck. To Kevin I said, “I’m calling a cab. If carryout containers can be put together with my salmon dinner and cake, I can pay for it to take home.”

“Certainly,” Kevin said. “I’ll let the chef know.”

I strode over to the maître d’ to arrange for a cab to come for me once the takeout was ready.

Once Dereck had gotten his coughing problem under control, he stalked over to where I stood.

“Go back to our table,” he said.

“We’ve talked for weeks now, and you wouldn’t listen. It’s over. We’re finished.”

Dereck turned beet red. “What have I done to treated like this?” He kicked the reservation stand so hard I feared it might topple over on me.

“Excuse me, madam,” the maître d’ said. From his tone, he was asking if I needed help.

“Everything is okay,” I said to the maître d’. Then to Dereck, “Isn’t that right?” and in a lower tone, “Or do you want to talk to a police officer?”

Dereck broke eye contact, muttered “Women” to himself, and left the restaurant.

 *

That night I feasted on salmon and cake until I felt full, then put the leftovers in my fridge. I was unhappily struck by the lack of solid food in it. Lots of liquid diet drinks, and celery in the crisper, and diet caffeinated soda. And that was about it.

Monica was right. I needed to eat better. I’d have to go shopping for groceries on the weekend.

In the meantime, I grabbed a plastic bag from under the sink, and put the liquid diet drinks in it. I’d leave it in the break room tomorrow for someone to take home.

Then Dereck had the nerve to text me while I was getting ready for bed: Talk 2 me.

I sent back: No!

Dereck: Stop being a bitch. We must work this out face 2 face.

Me: I hate you. Never text me again.

That got him to leave me alone for the rest of the night.

*

My alarm forced me to drag myself out of bed. I felt like I’d run a marathon while drunk, which made no sense since I sat at a desk all day.

If it hadn’t been Tim’s last day, I would have called in sick to sleep off the fatigue and wooziness.

But instead I made myself a cup of coffee, ate leftovers from dinner so I wouldn’t ride the bus on an empty stomach, and got on my way. I stuffed the bag of liquid diet drinks in a book bag so the plastic bag wouldn’t tear from the weight.

It was after I got on my bus for downtown that I discovered that this particular Friday morning would be the weirdest I’d ever experienced. For a man in his twenties ran up to the bus before it began to pull away from my stop, and I was struck by the faint golden glow around his blonde head.

I’ve definitely been working too hard, I thought. I’m punch drunk from exhaustion.

I rubbed my eyes to clear them, but the glow did not go away as he climbed aboard. His entire outline glowed like one of those tacky paintings of angels.

He made his way down the bus aisle, so I was able to study him up close.

His clothes were those of a successful businessman—grey wool suit, white shirt, briefcase. Blue eyes, and a face like the proverbial angel. Breathtakingly handsome.

I forced myself not to stare back at him after he passed from view.

The bus got moving, and I soon discovered that every few blocks or so, on the walls of scattered buildings near pedestrian level, was the exact same ancient Egyptian-like painting of two golden eyes with black pupils. The way it had been painted made it seem like the pupils moved, as if the eyes were looking around.

It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

You know, I ought to be panicking right now. Why am I sitting here so calm? Was there something in those weird ink specks last night that drugged me?

There was something familiar about the strange colors and patterns I was seeing, as if I’d seen them before and then forgotten them. I pinched my ear, but the pain made it clear that this wasn’t a dream I could wake from.

When my stop came into view, which was within sight of Knossos Tower and the Chesterton Downtown building where I worked, I nearly rose from my seat in shock at what I thought I saw.

I tried not to gawk as I got off of the bus. Glowing blonde guy got off as well, and headed toward my office building, slipping past me with eerie quickness and silence.

The faint imaginary glow of Knossos I’d been staring at for two weeks now existed in reality. And it was beautiful. The entire exterior of Knossos was surrounded by a protective silver-blue aura, with golden sparks that flickered in and out of existence.

It’s so gorgeous, I almost don’t care that I’m hallucinating. A strange conviction came over me that this was how things in Mather were supposed to look, that I was on the verge of seeing everything and everyone for how they truly were.

You’re crazy, Dorelai, I heard Father’s voice say in my head. Snap out of it. Now. I won’t have a child of mine behaving in such an irrational manner.

Screw you, I’m tired of you telling me what I can and cannot do.

Outside the Chesterton was a new street vender selling sunglasses and key rings. His brown skin also had a golden glow like that of glowing blonde guy, who had stopped to talk to him.

I pretended to stare into a jewelry store window as I watched glowing blonde guy confer briefly with glowing street vendor guy while pretending to shop for sunglasses. He actually bought a pair, and handed over cash and something else into the street vendor’s palm. Then he disappeared into my lobby.

I wobbled toward the Chesterton lobby entrance. There was a woozy calmness on me that I couldn’t shake, no matter what I saw as I looked around.

On an office building next to mine, two painted giant golden eyes stared down from the second floor. I gaped as I saw the pupils swing back and forth to gaze at the office workers going past.

There were no golden eyes painted upon the Knossos building itself, but many buildings around the plaza facing Knossos had golden eyes painted on them.

And as I scanned the plaza, I found another golden glowing form, this one a ragged beggar woman holding an empty glass jar as she sat on a bench. She was engulfed in cloaks and a floppy hat.

On a crazy impulse I couldn’t stop myself from acting on, I wandered back to the glowing street vendor to look at his wares.

“How’s it going?” I asked him as I poked at a keychain with a velvet-style portrait of Elvis attached.

“Not bad.” He smiled, showing perfect white teeth. Up close I could see that he, too, was staggeringly handsome under his sunshades and baseball cap.

Most of the keychains had portraits of famous people or imaginary characters.

“Will you be here on Monday?” I blathered. “I don’t have the money today to buy keychains.”

The vender grinned. “Likely. But you’d better shop today in case I’m not. Here today, gone tomorrow.”

“Oh.” I barely stopped myself in time from asking why he glowed like an angel.

Somehow I drifted into the Chesterton lobby, which after the muggy exhaust fumes of the street was a chilly contrast with its air conditioning. Glowing blonde angel guy was nowhere to be seen as I wobbled my way to the elevators.

*

The day started off badly with our status meeting with Ed.

Before the meeting, I’d been forced to splash my face with cold water from a sink in the women’s restroom for ten minutes to get my mind clear enough to function.

The first words out of Ed’s mouth at the meeting were, “I regret to inform you all that Monica has given her two weeks’ notice. We’ll miss her as much as we miss Tim. But she’ll be doing programming work as a contractor. A move up.”

Monica couldn’t look us in the eyes while he told us, but then her eyes were nearly puffed shut from getting so little sleep. She was a walking commercial for sleeping pills. Just looking at her made me want to yawn and go back to bed.

Ed continued. “She assures me that she’s taking a week off after she resigns to get some shut-eye. It will, um, be a while before we can replace her due to the postponement of all replacement hiring until next year.”

Hiring freeze. The odds of me being able to keep our project up and running for six months had just gotten a lot worse.

Jake smiled at me as he passed around mugs of coffee. Jackass. My predicament amused him.

Tim, Stuart, and Vadin were all gripping their pens too tight. They knew what this meant. The death spiral for the project had just sped up. Tim was right. Granite Hills was headed toward layoffs. And as a prototype software project, we’d be the first to go.

I stood up with my mug and snagged a sugar packet from the side table to add to my coffee, and as I stirred in the sugar, wriggling black specks floated to the top.

My back was turned to the group, so my grimace went unseen.

Jake. He’d made this coffee.

Tim and Ed blathered on about what had been learned during yesterday’s software release.

I went back to my seat next to Monica, carrying my drink, and eyed her coffee as she blew on it.

Hers had shiny blue specks swimming in it.

What the hell?

No one else seemed to have speck crap floating in their coffee. And no one seemed to be able to see the weird black specks in mine or the blue specks in Monica’s, for there would have been an uproar if they could.

I got up with my mug to go look again at the coffee urn. No sign of specks in the coffee drops underneath the urn’s spout, or in the mugs, or on the side table.

Drat,” I said as I deliberately knocked over my coffee. It spilled across the side table, exposing the wriggling specks to view. My coffee had been chock full of them.

Jake said, “I’ll get towels,” and ran for the break room. The rest stared in bemusement as the liquid spread across the side table. But none of them seemed to be able to see the disgusting speck stuff as I could, for no one said anything about it.

I don’t want to be called crazy. If I say anything about what I’m seeing, I will be.

Jake ran back in to hand me a roll of paper towels and a wastebasket. He watched with nervous interest as I cleaned up the spill.

As I soaked up the coffee and specks, I threw out each wad of paper towels before the liquid could touch my skin. I was able to clean up the spill without getting any of the specks on my skin, but it was a close call twice.

Once done, I tied up the wastebasket’s plastic liner so that none of the specks could accidentally fall out.

When I turned my attention back to the meeting, I noticed that Monica’s coffee mug was empty. Too late to knock hers over. And unless I was imagining things, her sunken tired look had faded slightly.

Then she gave a huge yawn. “Excuse me. I don’t know where that came from.”

Something was happening to her. Something good.

Jake was watching Monica. Her head bobbed once, and his bobbed in mimicry. Monica was in danger of falling asleep in the meeting.

I made myself a fresh mug of coffee before Jake could offer to do it. I’d have to find a way to nail Jake’s ass for whatever it was he was up to with the speck crap. This wasn’t the first time he’d given us all coffee. Looking back on the past few months, it would have been all too easy for him to slip something into a mug if he wanted to.

Unless, of course, you’re just seeing things.

I’m not crazy. I’m not. I could feel the cry of protest stick in my throat.

Yes, you are. Your hostility to Jake made you imagine you saw something in the coffee. No one else saw anything. Only you. Admit it, you’re going crazy, Dorelai.

I’m not!

Prove it. Stop imagining things that aren’t there.

*

Right after the meeting, Monica drifted over to her cubicle, put her head down on her arms as they rested on her desk, and fell into a deep sleep.

We left her alone. She seemed to be resting peacefully, with no bad dreams.

I did my best to try to forget everything that I had seen, but it was hard to focus on my work. Hard to pretend I’d just imagined it all.

Monica woke up around eleven with deep creases in her forehead from her sleeves. But the puffiness was receding. She looked better than she had in days. And hungry. I was relieved.

“Why don’t you take a break?” I said to her. “Go get a souvlaki for lunch from the Pomegranate Deli or something just as good.”

“But we’re eating out for dinner.”

“Big deal,” I said. “You look famished.”

Monica perked up at the thought of the Pomegranate. “I’ll do that,” she said, grabbing her purse. “But you have to come along with me to Knossos, Dorelai.”

I hesitated. If I saw that imaginary silver-blue glow around Knossos Tower again, I wasn’t sure how well I could handle it.

Monica ignored my silence and said, “Anyone want to place an order?”

“Fries and a falafel sandwich,” Vadin called out over his cubicle wall.

“Nothing,” Stuart and Jake said in unison.

“I brought a lunch,” Stuart added.

Tim said nothing. He hated Greek food, and so never ordered from there if he could help it.

Monica scribbled Vadin’s request down on a scrap of paper. “Got it,” she said. “C’mon, Dorelai, let’s go.” She gripped my arm so tight I thought she’d cut off my circulation.

Once we were in an elevator headed down to the lobby, she said to me, “I’m so embarrassed that I took a nap on my desk.”

“We were happy,” I said. “It looked like you were getting the best sleep you’d had in two weeks.”

It was.” Monica seemed startled by this. “No nightmares.”

“Um, when exactly did the nightmares start?”

“Sunday night, after the Chinese takeout.”

The elevator opened, and we exited into the lobby.

In the bright light of a summer noon, Knossos’ aura stuck out like a beacon in the heart of downtown. My heart rate sped up and I felt dizzy again.

Glowing street vendor was still at his post. Glowing homeless woman had moved to a new position down the street, sitting in the shade of a door stoop. The golden eyes glared down from the buildings.

I felt intense despair at what I was seeing as Monica and I crossed the plaza and approached the silver-blue aura around Knossos. The summer heat that radiated from the concrete of the sidewalks made me feel as if I would pass out. It took effort to keep walking.

When I reached the aura around Knossos, I instinctively flinched as I walked through it. Didn’t feel anything odd. Nothing seemed to happen. But it turned out to be a thin barrier instead of something that filled all of Knossos.

Like an energy shield around a spaceship in a science fiction show.

Dorelai, that kind of thinking is going to get you a mandatory visit to a psych ward in Boston if you don’t stop it.

Monica showed no sign that she saw the barrier aura around Knossos as I watched her walk through it. But as she passed through, a piece of the aura pulled off and stayed on her back as a tiny silver blob between her shoulder blades. It made me think of a transmitter.

As we entered the lobby, I eyed other people. They all had the same blob-thing on their backs.

I will not make a scene about imaginary blobs.

I shifted my body around so that I could look at my back in a nearby mirror as we made our way to the escalators. But I couldn’t see anything between my own shoulder blades.

This is all in my head.

But the blob was still to be seen on Monica’s back as I rode behind her on the escalator going down. I could feel clammy sweat ooze down my back and sides. I feared I might be sick.

We placed our orders at the takeout counter in the deli. I ordered a salad with grilled chicken even though I felt nothing but nausea, and Monica insisted we go hang out at the entrance to The Dive to watch the pool players while we waited for our orders to be ready.

I peered through the smoky haze of the pool hall to the bar.

There was a human-like cockroach at the bar guzzling beer. He wore a trench coat, and I watched with a surreal urge to laugh as he turned his beer glass upside-down over his mouth to get the last drops.

I blinked a few times, but he was still there and still a human roach.

My body was shaking all over and I felt sweat drip off my forehead.

Roach guy rocked his bar stool while waiting for the bartender to give him another beer.

“Well,” I said in a quivery voice to Monica, “let’s go pick up the food.”

I couldn’t resist a compulsion to look back as we walked away. Roach guy was happily guzzling his second beer. Then he noticed my too-shocked gaze, and swiftly put the beer down.

Shit.

My legs sped up to a near-run, and I bumped into Monica as she pulled open the Pomegranate’s door. “Sorry!” I said as I scurried in as fast as I could, and made sure I didn’t look back to see if he had followed us.

Monica, on the other hand, had no compunction about looking back. She did so before following me through the deli entrance. Then she whispered to me, “I think the guy is taken with you. He’s looking in at us right now. Rather cute, like an extra from The Maltese Falcon.”

I knew the movie. But I was making comparisons to Kafka in my head … and William Burroughs.

“Er, that’s interesting,” I said, and bit my lip to keep but I’m not into giant roaches as boyfriends from coming out.

I’m losing it. I’m not sure how much longer I can fake being normal.

Monica asked Amanda (one of the waitresses we knew well) to get our takeout, then tickled me in the side as we stood near the deli cash register to wait. “He’d be a step up from Dereck. You need to start dating someone else. That’s the only way you’ll make Dereck accept you don’t want to get serious with him.”

“I broke up with Dereck last night,” I said.

Monica whooped.

I just rubbed my clammy face with my trembling hands. Luckily the food arrived, so Monica got distracted from the whole topic of Dereck in divvying up the takeout bags.

When we went back into the hall the roach guy was gone, so I was spared a matchmaking attempt by Monica.

After going up the escalator and exiting the lobby doors, I saw that when Monica walked through the silver-blue aura barrier, the blob-thing merged with it instead of staying on her back as I had expected.

It was a difficult slog for me across the hot plaza to Granite Hills. I had to fight the continual urge to sit down on the plaza sidewalk and throw up.

Then my cell phone rang.

“A friend saw you in The Dive,” Louie said when I answered, “and let me know you were available to come over to the emporium.” His voice was smooth, but had an undercurrent of urgency.

My crazy-looking stares at the guy I’d taken for a giant cockroach must have somehow triggered this phone call. Stall him until you can think of a good cover story. “Maybe I can come by later.”

Silence on the other end of the line. Louie was not happy about this. “You’ll want to pick out a gift for Tim as soon as possible, since today is his last day.”

His tone troubled me—something was seriously bothering him, and for whatever reason he couldn’t talk about it on the phone. So I said, “You’re right. I ought to get it for Tim now. Give me a few minutes to get there.” I hung up, and said to Monica, “Go on without me. I forgot to pick up my gift for Tim.”

*

I walked through the barrier aura around Knossos without hesitation this time, and shoved my smelly takeout bag of grilled chicken into a trash can before going inside. Even though I was almost certain there had to be a blob-thing sitting between my shoulder blades from the aura, I couldn’t see one on my back in the lobby mirrors.

My feet felt like they would soon go out from under me. I felt as if I were being dragged down by sheer exhaustion.

Never had the basement hall seemed so long a distance as I plodded down it to the emporium with what strength I had left.

When I got close to the emporium’s entrance, I discovered that there was a faint image of weird stuff going on upon its walls and glass door—they were crawling with a silver shimmer.

I was too tired to care that I was seeing new imaginary things.

Through the glass door, I caught sight of the Jewish guy I’d seen before on the escalators. He again wore a woolen black suit and fedora, which had to be stifling in the August heat, but the details that would define him as a Haredi were still missing. Today his shirt was forest green in color. He and Louie had their heads bent together as they stood in front of the main display case, conferring.

Louie burned with a faint version of the aura that surrounded Knossos itself.

Why am I not surprised? Louie and Knossos have the same aural patterns, my thoughts babbled, and I wonder if he would be upset if he found out I knew it? Maybe Louie can help me. Maybe he would understand if I tell him what I see when I look at him instead of calling me crazy.

The Jewish guy had no aura as far as I could tell. He shook his head at Louie, whether in disagreement or concern, I wasn’t sure.

I had an instinctive urge not to touch the silver glow crawling over the door handle, but made myself do so. I couldn’t feel anything different upon the cool brass.

The door refused to budge.

Louie looked at me through the glass and motioned for me to try again. The silver stuff writhed around the door lock. I heard the snick of the lock turning on its own, which didn’t faze me in the least.

This time the door pulled open easily.

After the door shut behind me, the lock snicked again.

“I’ve locked the door so we won’t be interrupted during our conversation,” Louie said. “Dorelai, this is Rabbi Elijah Rzondzinski. Rabbi Eli, this is Ms. Dorelai Trelton.”

Shalom aleichem, Ms. Trelton,” Eli said.

I just stood there right inside the entrance. I didn’t think I had the strength to take another step. And it was taking major effort not to weave on my feet.

“Just call me Dorelai,” I said.

Eli smiled and strode toward me, his hand outstretched to shake mine, and when I took a step forward to meet him halfway in the emporium aisle, I ended up staggering instead, and had to grab onto a shelf of antique leather books to keep my balance. Two books tipped over to spill open on the floor before I could stop them.

It was only with effort that I kept myself from toppling over as well. The ground felt as if it were heaving under me like a rowboat in a storm. Please don’t let me puke on Louie’s antiques. In a hoarse croak, I said, “Louie, I think I’m s-sick.”

Somehow Louie had gotten between Rabbi Eli and me while I was distracted with trying not to throw up. I’d never seen Louie look so worried before as he stared intently at my face. Then a realization came to him, and he went from worried to horrified. “Good God,” he said, “your irises. You’re crawling with nightmare dust.”

************** End of Chapter 2 *****************

Stay tuned for Chapter 3 next Tuesday. (Note: If you are reading this post after April 15, 2013, click here to go to Cubicle‘s main page on this website so you can find Chapter 3.)

This novel is currently available in e-book format from e-bookstores such as iTunes, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Diesel, Sony, and other retailers. This will likely change over time (since an audio and print version will be coming out), so click here to go to Cubicle’s main page, if you’re reading this months after April 8, 2013, to see what is available.

Feel free to forward this post or share the link to Cubicle’s main page if you think a friend would enjoy the story.

Cheers, L. M.