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.)

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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.

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