Monthly Archives: May 2013

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic – Chapter 8: Into the Labyrinth

Soon we’ll reach Chapter 10, and after that chapter is posted we’ll move on to something new. Most of what is posted on Tuesdays will continue to be excerpts, but as various short stories and novels finally get published (and  print editions are released), the opportunity to share something in its entirety as a PDF will likely arise. Will let you all know if it does.

At the end of Chapter 7, Louie flung a ball of magical lightning at Dorelai. We now continue with Chapter 8 of Cubicles, Blood, and Magic. If you missed the earlier chapters, click here.  (PG-13 rating)

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 8:

Into the Labyrinth

Instinctively I caught the lightning ball between my hands as I sat in Louie’s office, and it burst through my fingers into buzzing streaks around my arms, shoulders, and face. There was no pain, though I expected to be in agony once the nerve signals reached my brain.

But when I opened my moist palms to inspect them, to my astonishment I didn’t have burns on them or any other sign of damage.

I leapt up from my chair. “You sonofabitch!” I said as I circled around his desk. “I’m not your lab rat!”

Louie circled around the other side so that his desk stayed between us.

“How dare you do that without asking me first!”

“Surprise was of the essence, Ms. Trelton. Now go sit back down, because I’d much rather not hurt you if you get close enough to attack.”

The danger of me going after Louie like this came to me. He meant what he was saying. There was no fear in him in the way he’d moved away from me. More like buying time until I calmed down.

I’d been in fights with my older brothers while growing up—and as the youngest, I’d learned the hard way to pick my battles carefully. Louie held himself like someone who’d had years of martial arts training. He’d be more likely to hurt me, than me hurt him.

So I went to my chair and sat back down, folding my arms.

Louie strode back to his own chair, straightened his tie, shot his cuffs, and sat back down as well. He placed his hands on the desk before him. “Right. I apologize for the underhandedness of what I did, Ms. Trelton, but if I’d told you what was going to happen, it would have ruined the test completely.”

“You might have hurt me.”

“If I had thought there was a risk of doing so, I wouldn’t have done it. Now, if instead I’d used magic to drop a brick on your head, that would have hurt you.” He steepled his fingers again as he pondered something, then said, “I’d be willing to wager you’ve been seeing faint shadows of ‘invisible’ things since birth; magic that was supposed to be hidden from view or only visible to other magic wielders. If so, you learned how to mentally block those shadows from your conscious mind—a necessary defense, since otherwise you would have been institutionalized by your family.”

A jumbled memory flashed through my mind of being bodily hauled away by Mother and Father as I screamed and kicked and arched my back to try to free myself to go after a faint golden glow to touch it.

“Louie … I was notorious in my family for being a ‘runner’ as a young child. My parents got tired of chasing me through the streets of New York City, so for a few years they used a modified dog leash around my waist for all outings to the city. I can’t remember much of anything of what I saw, except once I was chasing after something with a Magi-like glow.”

A flicker of pity crossed his face. “The Magi patrol New York City in large numbers due to it being a favorite hiding place for rogue magic wielders. You got trained to stop seeing things. That sort of mental block can be overwhelmed by an overdose of nightmare dust since the attack done to the conscious mind is so severe. Though in your case, it was both the breakage of a mental block and a physical transformation at the same time.”

What am I?”

He rubbed at his temples as if his headache of yesterday had returned.

I folded my hands on my lap to wait.

Then it hit me. Dorelai, you idiot, he’s stalling for time. “Spit out what you’re willing to tell me now, Louie, and skip any lies you were planning to say to make me think you’d told me everything.”

Instead of being offended, Louie grinned at me. “I can see that working with you is going to be both a pleasure and a pain, Trelton. My tests have already told you what you need to know right now about your abilities, but I will tell you one other thing: you have no magical aura of any sort. You look like a typical human.”

Louie’s roundabout answer annoyed me, but I was certain it was all I’d get out of him this time. I thought about all the tests Louie had put me through. I have a unique ability to see all magic, even that which is supposed to be hidden … and a certain amount of invulnerability to magical substances, barriers, and attacks. “I’d make a good Magus if I joined Zaliel’s Magi, wouldn’t I?”

No, even though your abilities would be priceless for hunting down rogues. You would see everything, instead of only what Zaliel wanted you to see. Also, you’re too curious and too independent. You’d find the tactics of the Magi appalling.”

Peter.” My breath came out in a hiss.

Quite.” From the way Louie scowled, he loathed Peter as much as Eli did. “Stay away from that git as best you can. I know it will be difficult, since you are a friend of Rabbi Eli’s, and Peter is his sworn enemy.”

The steel door into the service corridor opened, but no one was there.

Louie gazed unseeing at the grey corridor as if he heard something I couldn’t. “Our conversation is over. For now. It’s time for you to go find Sariel. It’s waiting for you.”

“Sariel?”

He gave a trace of a smile, but there was a haunted look in his eyes. “My boss. All those who work for me must meet Sariel.”

Uneasily I recollected Eli’s mention of the journey he’d made into the depths of Knossos.

Louie checked his watch. “If you start now into the labyrinth, you ought to be back before sunset. I’m having afternoon tea with the mayor, so I’ll wait to eat supper until you return to join me. You will have to leave your purse and cell phone here.” He pushed away from his desk and walked over to stand next to the steel door.

The service corridor looked greyer and dingier than ever.

I looked down at my feet. Good thing I was wearing business loafers, not high heels. But I would have preferred sneakers.

So I got up from my chair and came to stand before the open doorway, not liking the rattling noise of machinery in the distance. Sounded almost like someone choking to death.

And this time the hooves were coming closer.

“The service corridors will take you to Sariel,” he said. “Just follow the sound of the hooves into the labyrinth.”

I felt something soft tucked into my hand. I looked down at it—a long strip of black velvet. It was the sort of thing a magician might wear to do a trick. “What’s this?”

“A blindfold. You’ll need to wear it to find your way through the labyrinth. And to preserve your sanity. Don’t take it off until Sariel tells you to do so.”

My heart was beating fast and my hands were shaking, but I went ahead and stepped out into the service corridor anyway.

There was nothing to be seen in either direction that was unusual. Grey walls, grey concrete floors, a few steel doors. But I could hear the hooves walking around somewhere down the right corridor.

I closed my eyes and tied the blindfold around my head, making sure the knot was tight.

The sound of the hooves sharpened. Touching my right fingers to the corridor wall, I began to walk in the direction of the hooves, letting my fingers trail against the bumpiness of the pits in the concrete.

Louie said not a word, but I could tell that the door was still open and that he was watching me wander down the corridor. I didn’t hear the door close behind me until I reached an intersection of corridors, and passed out of view by turning left toward the hooves.

*

My fear became dulled by the monotony of wandering the seemingly endless maze of service corridors blindfolded, taking careful steps in case there was a sudden hole I could fall down or an obstacle I’d trip over, using the fingers of my right or left hand to feel the walls.

The texture of the walls didn’t change, except when I would feel a closed steel door I was passing. And at times I had to pass through an opened door. But surely Knossos’ corridors didn’t go on for miles underneath downtown Mather. So perhaps I was being led in circles as part of an initiation ritual Sariel liked.

The hooves got neither closer nor farther away, instead maintaining a steady distance before me. Their sound helped me choose which way to go at each intersection of corridors, but then finally my journey changed: the corridor I was in let out into a larger space.

I paused, listening. From the acoustics, I suspected I’d reached a hub where many different corridors met.

I dug into my pocket and found a penny. I regretted having to leave my purse back in Louie’s office since I could have used lip balm to make marks I could feel and smell at intersections during the journey.

Squatting down beside the right wall of the corridor I was about to exit, I put the penny up against the wall on the ground. For all I knew, whatever created the hoof noises would get rid of it, but maybe not. At least I’d have a shot at finding the correct corridor again that headed back to Knossos.

The hooves had gone down another corridor, for I could hear whatever it was walking away from me and the hub. I felt around the right edge outside of my corridor’s wall. Curved brick instead of straight concrete was what was there. So the hub was circular.

I sidled out of my corridor to the right, facing the curved brick wall, and edged along sideways as if I’d climbed out onto a building’s ledge. And within a few steps I was glad I had been so cautious, for from the center of the chamber came a gust of air from below.

That stopped me. The gust had smelled like that from an underground cavern. And when I listened hard, the far away echo of a drip could be heard coming from the center as well.

There was a deep drop somewhere in the center of the chamber.

Spreading out my hands as far as they could reach on the brick, I began to inch onward. But all too soon my left hand reached the end of the wall. I had a corridor gap to cross.

I listened, but there was no sound of hooves from this corridor’s depths. The air from it smelled like that of a root cellar.

Even stretched out, I couldn’t touch the other side of the corridor opening, so I turned to kneel down, and crawled across the gap, making sure with my hands that there was no surprise drop in front of me.

When I reached the brick again, I had to take a few seconds to stop and just cling to it for reassurance. I’d been so afraid the corridor gap would prove to be too big to stay oriented, and that I’d get confused and move toward the center by accident.

From that point forward, I stuck to crawling so that I could check the ground in front of me for holes, and moved as quickly as I dared to catch up with my guide.

I was covered in nervous sweat by the time I found the corridor that my guide had gone down.

The air out of it smelled like a tomb. Rough sandstone hewn into blocks lined the corridor’s walls and floor from the feel of it. I stood, and touching the right wall, made my way forward.

I’d only walked for a few minutes when I realized the corridor was getting smaller—I could now touch both walls if I stood in the middle and held out my hands. But I kept to my walking pace alongside the right wall so that I could check what was before me.

The sound of hooves faded away from ahead.

I walked onward as quickly as I dared, my own breathing loud in the silence, and soon the corridor was so low I had to stoop over to keep going, and the way so narrow I had to crook my elbows to my sides so that I could run my hands along both sandstone walls as I walked forward.

To my relief, the corridor got no smaller, but the walls were getting rougher, the edges of the blocks less smooth.

My next step resulted in the scritch of sand on sandstone. There was loose sand on the stones under my foot. And with each successive step, the sand underneath got thicker until I could no longer feel stone under my feet. I was walking on loose sand like that found on a beach.

Then the walls ended at the edge of a large open space. The air from it was stale and cool, like that of an underground stone chamber.

“You may take off your blindfold, Dorelai Judith Trelton,” someone said. I could not tell if the voice was male or female.

I untied the knot, lowered the cloth, and opened my eyes while I pocketed the blindfold. Darkness surrounded me, lit only by a spherical blue luminescence floating before me.

“I shall light the torches for you,” the voice said.

Three torches bolted into the stone walls sparked to life, two to the sides and one behind me; the golden light from the torches had a firework-like glitter that reminded me of the golden sparks in Knossos’ and Louie’s auras. It made the golden light of Zaliel and the Magi seem drab by comparison.

I discovered I was within a stark chamber with a sand floor, like that of a stripped tomb. The crystalline sphere before me lay on the lap of a grey statue sitting on a throne. The human-like statue was leaning forward, his or her stone hands on either side of the sphere to hold it in place, intently staring into its depths. It wore loose robes of no historical era I recognized.

The edges of the statue were crumbling into dust, so that there was a raggedness to the statue’s hands and arms and robes. And the facial features were all gone, worn away.

I glanced behind me, and found there were two stone statues of minotaurs that flanked the entrance back into the corridor I’d come from. These had not begun to crumble as the human statue had. And deep from the corridor’s depths I could hear hooves on stone—either my guide had gotten back through without passing me by, or there was more than one guide in the corridors. Likely the latter.

“Are you Sariel?”

“Yes.”

I swallowed. My throat felt too dry. “Louie sent me to find you.”

“Percival Louis Sahir McDonough. I know him.”

Hmm, Louie had quite a mouthful for a name.

The sphere under Sariel’s fingertips flared brighter. To me it seemed as if the hollow crystal sphere was filled with whirling clouds of the antidote for nightmare dust. Or millions of blue stars. Sariel said, “Louis chooses to serve me, as do others. Why are you here?”

The whirling patterns of stars drew me toward the sphere. “Because I was sent by Louie. I had no choice but to come.”

“No, you had a choice.”

I was so close now that I could see that it was stars, not antidote specks, that I was looking at in the sphere. And the stars were changing, so that yellow and red stars were appearing within view as well as blues. No wonder Sariel was engrossed by the sight. “So Louie lied to me about my options?”

“No. He merely emphasized the choice with the greatest chance of survival. He wants you to choose to serve me. But you can turn around and leave if you so wish. You can try to kill Louis, so that he is forced to give you a quick death; or walk through the labyrinth without a blindfold, so that you go insane; or have the Magi take you to Zaliel to be consumed; or commit suicide; or try to kill Zaliel before it discovers what you are; or flee Mather to hide from the Magi and sorcerers who will hunt for you; or barricade yourself in your apartment until someone forces their way in.”

“I’d soon be dead if I chose any of those.” The spinning of the stars was making me dizzy.

“But they are still choices you could make.”

“I don’t want to die!”

“You are going to die, human. It is only a question of when and how. Spare me your whines about it.”

I looked at the crumbling stone face. “Are you immortal?”

“I shall die. There were seven of us when we first woke, but in these days only three remain: Gadreel, Azazel, and myself.” Within the depths of the sphere, stars went supernovae or winked out. “Louis tells me you have seen the eyes of Zaliel. Gadreel shaped its daimons in its own image, and Zaliel is but one of many daimons that Gadreel has wrought.”

If Zaliel was an example of what Gadreel was like, I wanted nothing to do with either of them. Perhaps Azazel might be another choice I could consider. “Is Azazel anything like you?”

The ground trembled under my feet. Dust spilled from the cracks between the sandstone blocks to fill the air, and I coughed.

“Azazel fell,” Sariel said. “To punish Gadreel by the torment and destruction of its daimons and Magi has become his obsession. He is the maker of fiends like Bebon and Mara.”

So, Azazel was even nastier than Gadreel. And had somehow gotten a gender. “How old are you?”

“Over six thousand years have passed.”

I took a moment to think about this. “Did the others die of old age?”

“All four died in our wars over what to do about humans.”

My breath came out in a whoosh.

“Humanity was never worth it,” Sariel said. “Better we had abandoned you all to destroy yourselves, and left Earth. But Gadreel and Penemue would not hear of it—they thought humans could be civilized to use magic and knowledge responsibly. They were wrong. You are a murderous bloodthirsty mindless greedy species, worse than locusts or any other living creature you sneer at. Gadreel burdens itself with the affairs of your species, to its detriment. And Azazel has become corrupted beyond redemption.”

Within the sphere, the stars continued to spin and die. Sariel’s words made me feel cold both inside and out. And yet—”Then why are you still here on Earth?”

“Louis woke me. Azazel had escaped the bindings upon him, and had gone into hiding to gather his strength. Soon now Azazel will move against Gadreel … and Gadreel shall need me. There is a chance that Gadreel can be reclaimed. We will either leave this planet, or sleep within our memories until death claims us.”

The lights in the sphere all winked out, and Sariel seemed to have become engrossed in staring at the emptiness.

All of my choices sucked as far as I was concerned. But perhaps if I stayed alive I could someday find a way to escape all of this. So I said, “I’ve made my choice. I’m going to work for you and Louie.”

“Then put your hands on the sphere.”

I did so, shocked at the coldness of its smooth surface. My hands felt frozen to it, and when I tried to lift them away, I found they truly were stuck.

Sariel said, “Do not fight it. Let the sphere bring you in.”

The sphere’s surface gave under my hands, sucking them inside into an empty space in which I couldn’t feel anything. Then something yanked, hard, on my wrists, pulling the rest of me into the sphere.

*

I awoke from unconsciousness. I felt nothing—no heartbeat in my chest, no breathing, no air on my skin. I floated in a void dotted with moon-sized spheres of prismatic light. Staying here was dangerous. It could trigger hallucinations and even madness if I didn’t escape.

Remember this place, Sariel said in my head. You shall see it again.

The void cracked before me, and I was sucked through into a Caribbean blue sea. Oddly, I could breathe underwater, and swam around like a fish. Upon the surface of the water above, I could see the reflection of a face.

I surfaced, to find myself standing on the sands of Sariel’s chamber. But O’Keefe, much older than the human glamour I’d seen when I’d squinted at him as he drove, stood before the statue. He could not see me. There was thick grey stubble on his cheeks, and his eyes were bloodshot. He weaved on his feet, stinking of beer and cigarettes, his grey hair greasy and lank. His trench coat was filthy, as if he’d been crawling through a sewer to get to Sariel.

“Penance,” O’Keefe said. “That’s all I ask of ya. Turn me into something disgusting so I can bear to look at myself in the mirror.”

“I do not see the point,” Sariel said. “Most humans will be unable to see the transformation. Gadreel will insist that a glamour hide your strange form from view.”

I don’t care. I’ll know, and that’s enough.” He lurched to his knees, weeping. “For the love of God, change me or kill me, just don’t leave me like this.”

“As you wish.”

O’Keefe screamed as his skull began to elongate, the skin around his mouth splitting—

That is enough, Sariel said.

—I was back floating in the warm blue sea within the sphere.

Remember what you have seen, Sariel said, but you will speak of it to no one. I have shown you a transformation. Aidrian Brian O’Keefe has feelings of guilt that will make it nigh impossible for him to refuse to answer your questions or to help you.

An undersea current grabbed hold of me, and hauled me toward the curved surface of the sphere despite my efforts to swim away, and I was tossed out in a gush of water onto the sands.

Sopping wet, I pushed myself up and onto my knees, then tottered to my feet. I would have gladly spent more time swimming in that inner sea of the sphere.

“If I had let you stay within longer, leaving would have become that much more unbearable to you,” Sariel said. “Humans find it addictive.”

I brushed at the sand that clung to my sides and knees. But I was so wet that most of the sand just moved around, sticking to my pants and blouse, instead of falling off. “What now?”

“You go back. Do not return unless I give you permission to do so.”

“Must I use a blindfold?”

“Only if you wish to remain sane,” Sariel said. The torches dimmed.

Soon I would be back in the dark with only the sphere’s luminescence for light.

I dug around in my pocket, half-afraid I’d lost the blindfold while in the sphere, but my fingers closed on the fabric and I pulled it out.

The torch lights were down to embers.

Wrapping the cloth around my eyes, I tied it in place.

The hooves ran toward me, echoing off the corridor walls, until something stood before me and made a snorting breath. I thought I could smell sweaty fur. When I reached out a hand, I only found air to pass through my fingers.

“Lead on,” I whispered.

My guide gave a soft snort, and walked before me, leading me through the dark back the way I’d come.

*

My journey blindfolded back to Knossos was no easier to bear, for I was taken a different way than I’d gone. So I had to move as I had before, carefully feeling my way forward along a wall to make sure I didn’t fall to my death.

I became convinced there was something odd about these corridors, about how the walls felt, something not real (as I’d thought they were on the journey in), as if my brain were making patterns I could understand because the reality was beyond my senses.

The hooves varied in coming closer to check on me or running on ahead.

My clothes dried slowly as the cool air wicked the moisture away. By the time I reached the oh-so-welcome faint racket of machinery in the Knossos service corridors, I was dry. I felt drained, my skin cold, my legs quivery, my feet hurting in my loafers. And I was hungry and thirsty.

The sound of hooves faded away like a radio being turned down.

In the distance before me, I heard a steel door open, banging into a corridor wall.

“Trelton!” O’Keefe’s voice, faint. “Goddamn it, where are ya!”

I reached up and yanked down the blindfold to hang from my neck, and blinked under the fluorescent lights. The corridor before me was empty, but there was an intersection up ahead. My mouth was so dry I could only get out a faint squawk.

“She’ll return when Sariel is done,” Louie said, “and not a second before then.”

Their voices were coming from around a corner of the intersection. And there was the sound of footsteps approaching. I tried to walk faster toward them, but my legs weren’t cooperating very well.

“It’s like giving a mouse to a cat,” O’Keefe said. “One of these days Sariel’s gonna surprise us with mouse sashimi.” More footsteps, getting louder. “I hate this goddamn maze.”

Quiet,” Louie said. “I hear footsteps.”

They stopped walking, but I continued.

Louie said, “It’s her. Same sound she made with her shoes on the concrete when she left.” They sped up, and turned the corner within seconds.

O’Keefe broke out in a run toward me, saying, “Trelton? Are ya okay?” while Louie kept to a fast walk. O’Keefe had changed into a dark navy suit, but Louie was still dressed the same as before.

“She’s dehydrated,” Louie said, “give her the water.”

Once he’d reached me, O’Keefe pulled out the water bottle in his suit pocket, twisting it open for me. He was acting the way he might act with a lost kid.

I stopped to lean my back against the wall, and guzzled the entire bottle down, trying to stop myself from drinking it too fast, but unable to do so. Louie stood nearby with O’Keefe, and neither of them said a thing as they watched me drink. It was odd.

Once I was done, I could finally speak. “Thanks.” My voice sounded husky to my ears. I wiped the back of my hand against my lips to get rid of the splattered drops.

Looking down, I saw my pants and blouse were still thickly covered with sand. So much for looking sharp for an interview.

“Yer late,” O’Keefe said. “It’s three hours past sunset.” Now he sounded just like my mother.

For a split-second, I remembered O’Keefe screaming in agony as Sariel transformed him into his present human-roach form. But I shoved the memory away, and said, “I don’t know why I’m late. Maybe the corridors took longer, or Sariel took its time in messing with me.”

“Probably both,” Louie said. He pulled out his phone to press a number. “Supper will be delivered to my office.”

I pushed off the wall and walked onward, O’Keefe by my side, as Louie led the way. We turned left at the intersection, and a ways down, there was an open steel door that led into another set of service corridors.

Once we had passed through and the steel door to the maze was slammed shut, O’Keefe visibly relaxed.

A few more turns, and we reached the steel door for Louie’s office. When it opened, a strong aroma of rosemary chicken and roasted potatoes made me want to sink to my knees from hunger.

As he stepped into his office, Louie said to me, “There’s a lavatory in the library. You may wash up in there.” He pointed toward an open wooden door across the oriental carpet of his office, where inside I could see the corner of a glossy wooden table and wooden bookshelves built into the walls beyond it.

The part of the table I could see had been set with placemats and crystal, as well as covered serving trays.

I glanced down at my sand-crusted clothes and shoes, and instead of following O’Keefe through the doorway to get out of the service corridor, I proceeded to brush sand from me onto the concrete.

Engrossed in scraping the sand off my loafers by using the doorframe, I wasn’t aware Louie had come to stand by me until I saw his black business shoes. “Trelton, I can assure you my carpets will survive a bit of muck. That’s what vacuum cleaners are for.”

I looked up to see him frowning down at me, so I stood up as nonchalantly as I could, but made sure to tilt my foot so I could scrape off the last clump of dried gunk stuck to one loafer.

His raised his eyebrows at me, but refrained from commenting. Instead he jerked his thumb at the open library door.

I walked across the carpet as lightly as I could, snagging my purse and cell phone, and went on into the library, taking in the sight of the walls with their in built-in bookshelves and O’Keefe sitting at the table pouring a bottle of beer into his crystal goblet.

None of the aged books on the shelves had any sort of aura to them. And this was most definitely not a standard corporate library and conference room; it was decked out in expensive wood furniture and paneling you’d find in an exclusive London club of the 1920s.

Instead of regular lights, there were two brass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling with bulbs that made fake flames, as well as electric wall sconces in various nooks. And art from around the world tucked into wall recesses and shelf nooks. The carpeting was plush in an oriental pattern. Leather chairs were near various bookshelves, or put together in a pairs next to a tall tea table. Facing a wall of bookshelves was a huge couch with a Stuart plaid flannel blanket folded across it, and a carved coffee table sat between it and the bookshelves.

All Louie needed was a butler carrying a tray of sherry to complete the ambiance.

I noted the discreet wooden door in a far corner of the room—the bathroom, no doubt.

As I crossed the room toward that closed door, I said to O’Keefe, “Please don’t wait for me. Go ahead and eat.” Flicking the bathroom light on, I slipped inside to discover that there was not only a sink and toilet, but also a small shower stall.

I needed a shower very badly, but it would have to wait until I got home.

The 1920s decor continued in here, so that the bathroom fit right in with the personality of the library/conference room. There was even a silver bowl of dried rose petals on a shelf above the sink.

I quickly cleaned up as best I could with soap and water. Due to my dunking within Sariel’s sphere, my hair was matted into knotted lumps that made it painful to run my comb through them. And my blouse and pants had deep wrinkles and folds from my adventures that I would just have to put up with. I removed the blindfold from around my neck, and tucked it into my purse.

When I came back out into the library, I was dismayed to see that O’Keefe and Louie had waited for me before eating. But I kept my mouth shut about it.

Recorded piano music played through hidden speakers—Chopin.

Louie pulled out my chair for me, then sat down at the head of the table. O’Keefe was on his right, me on his left. There were three silver serving trays, one in front of each of us, as well as rolls already set out for us on bread plates, and slices of baklava. Bottles of beer were on the table next to O’Keefe, as well as a carafe of ice water.

Lifting the wine bottle out of its bucket, Louie reached over to pour for me—

—but I’d interposed my hand above my wine glass, covering it. “No, thank you. I’ll just have water, please.” The last thing I wanted was a repeat of last night’s stupid behavior.

O’Keefe chuckled as he pushed the water carafe to me.

A blush began to spread across my face.

Louie paused in filling his own wine glass, and stared at O’Keefe in astonishment. “What is so amusing this evening, Mr. O’Keefe?”

O’Keefe shook his head and it made his antennae bob around.

I could feel my cheeks getting hot from how red I was turning.

Louie looked at me, taking in my red face, then back at O’Keefe, then back at me. “Right.” He shrugged, and poured his wine. “Clearly you two have been up to mischief of a sort. I shan’t ask.”

O’Keefe guffawed.

Louie jammed the bottle back into the bucket, and said to O’Keefe, “You had better not have pulled a prank on Rabbi Eli.”

O’Keefe’s laughter stopped. He downed his glass of beer while his antennae whipped around his head.

Louie gave each of us stern looks.

I pretended not to notice and lifted the silver cover off the tray before me. A prepared meal of rosemary chicken, roasted potatoes, and spanakopita met my eyes.

We ate in silence to the music of Chopin, except for when O’Keefe asked for his wine glass to be filled. I stuck to ice water with a slice of lemon squeezed into it. Shabbat had ended at dusk, and I wondered if Rabbi Eli had dined alone.

************** End of Chapter 8 *****************

Chapter 9 will go up next Tuesday. (Note: If you are reading this post after June 4, 2013, click here to go to Cubicle‘s main page on this website so you can find Chapter 9.)

This e-book is available at iTunes, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Diesel, Sony, and other e-bookstores. Since the internet changes over time, these links may change, so click here to go to Cubicle’s main page where the links will be kept current.

See you next week, L.M.

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic – Chapter 7: A Job Interview with Louie

We’ve now reached Chapter 7 of Cubicles, Blood, and Magic. When we last left off, Dorelai was about to talk to O’Keefe in the middle of the night. If you missed the earlier chapters, click here.  (PG-13 rating, folks.)

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 7:

A Job Interview with Louie

On my TV, I saw the chef on the cooking show flip a pancake using just his pan instead of a spatula.

I wandered out of my bedroom into the living room so I could get a better view. “That’s got to be messy to learn how to do.”

O’Keefe picked up a mug from the side table and took a drink. After he put the mug back down with a thunk, he said, “How’s yer hip?”

I put my hand on the bruise. “Sore, but it no longer throbs.”

“Xu could take a look at it for ya when I take ya in.”

“That shouldn’t be necessary.” I sat down on the recliner.

“How long ya date that Dereck asshole?”

“Two months or so.”

“He ever hurt ya before?”

“No.”

O’Keefe chewed the cigarette up and swallowed it. “If he comes back acting like he did last night, gonna have to go down to the station and file a report on him.”

“It was an accident.” Dereck’s cry of those words echoed in my mind as I said them aloud.

Digging a cigarette from the pack in his suit pocket, O’Keefe said, “Didn’t look like no accident to me.” He put the unlit cigarette in his mouth. “Didn’t look that way to Rabbi Eli, neither.”

“Objection noted,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about this anymore.

We sat watching the chef make an enormous omelet with Italian sausage, Portobello mushrooms, red pepper, and onions.

O’Keefe took another swallow of his beer by shifting the cigarette over to the far corner of his mouth. When he was done swallowing, he picked up the TV controller to set the volume much higher—the chef’s chatter would drown out our voices from a distance. “Yer apartment ain’t bugged. Yet.”

I didn’t like that “yet” in there. “So you think I’m going to get bugged?”

“Yup.”

I waited for him to say something more, but he didn’t. “Is there anything I can do to stop it?”

“Nope.” He twitched an arm to encompass the view of my apartment. “No way ya can secure this place. The locks are a goddamn joke. There’s a fire escape on the back of yer building even a child could climb, not that anyone who knows their stuff would need it. Ya gotta goddamn roof highway running from brownstone to brownstone.”

“Are you saying I’m going to have to move?” I liked this place. I’d found it after living in Mather for a year in a crappy condo rental.

“Yup.”

I let out an exasperated breath. “I don’t want to move.”

“Ya ain’t gonna have a choice.” O’Keefe absentmindedly touched his semiautomatic. “Being on guard 24/7 grinds ya down. Everyone but Rabbi Eli has already settled within Knossos—they have places on the outside to visit, but Knossos is where they go to sleep. And even the Rabbi will have to give up living on the outside before too long.”

Before I could ask, O’Keefe said, “That’s all I’m gonna to say about it here.”

So instead I asked, “What good is a semiautomatic against Mag—, um, the dangers around here?”

I couldn’t be sure, but I thought O’Keefe smiled while he patted his gun. “It can take down a lotta people with unusual abilities. Remember that, Trelton, cold stats are yer best buddy in dealing with yer enemies. How many bullets per minute ya do could be the difference between life and death. All but the most unusual struggle to block gunfire. The more bullets, the harder it is to block them all.”

“Then why isn’t there a submachine gun in your lap?”

“If I’d thought I’d need it, I would’ve brought it up.” Now I was sure O’Keefe was grinning at me. “It’s in its case.” He jerked a sharp thumb toward the street.

“No,” I said. “You don’t mean in your car there’s…”

O’Keefe waggled his antennae at me.

I said, “Don’t you dare bring it up here.”

O’Keefe laughed, and his cigarette fell onto the carpet. He snatched it up before it could make a mark, and ate it.

How can you eat that?” I said. “My stomach hurts just watching you.”

Pulling two cigarettes out of his pack, he swallowed both of them without even chewing.

“That’s disgusting,” I said, feeling both nausea and amusement.

“I’m a roach,” he said. “Whaddaya expect? That I’d eat flowers and poop sunshine?”

I laughed.

He took another swig from his mug of beer, then grabbed the controller to turn the volume back down. The chef’s show had been replaced by a cheery woman who was going to show us how to deep fry snack cakes. “Try to get some more shut-eye, Trelton. Ya gotta exhausting day ahead of ya.”

Part of me wanted to stay up and ask more questions, but I had to admit O’Keefe was right. I needed more sleep. Seemed almost pointless to get into pajamas, but teeth brushing was definitely called for.

*

The pounding on my front door woke me. I blearily opened an eye to check the time. Six. For a panicked moment I wondered if I’d forgotten that Stuart was driving me in to work today, until I realized it was Saturday.

Dorelai!” Dereck’s voice.

I stumbled out of my bedroom to the door to peek through the peephole. Dereck’s own eye was pressed up against it.

Looking over my shoulder, I saw that O’Keefe had stood up from my couch. On the TV some guy was trying to roast potatoes on a BBQ grill instead of doing it the easy way by baking them in an oven.

O’Keefe finished checking his semi, and slipped it into his shoulder holster under his jacket.

Are you okay?” Dereck called through the door. “I know you’re in there. I’m not leaving until I’m sure you’re safe.”

“I’m fine,” I called through the door. “Go home, Dereck.”

Dereck pounded so hard on the door it rattled in its frame. It made echoes up and down the stairwell. I could hear other apartment doors opening.

“Shut up!” A man’s voice from downstairs.

O’Keefe said to me, “Let me handle him.” He positioned himself by the door so that he could ambush Dereck. Softly he said, “When I give the signal, yer gonna yank the door open. Stay out of sight behind it.” He reached over to quietly flip the bolt and slide out the chain.

Then he gestured for me to unlock the doorknob and yank it open.

I did so, ducking down behind the open door.

Dereck said, “Wh—”

One second O’Keefe was beside the door, the next he’d pounced upon Dereck. “Who buzzed ya into this building?” I heard O’Keefe bellow. “Answer me. Now.”

What are you doing in my girlfriend’s apartment?”

“She ain’t yer girlfriend, asshole.”

I heard someone get slammed up against the wall.

“Who let ya in?” O’Keefe said.

“I’m having you charged with assault.”

“Do that, counselor. I’m sure they’d love to hear about what I and my friend saw ya do to Ms. Trelton last evening.”

I heard Dereck make a soft squeak.

“Was it 101? 102? 103? Ahh, 103.”

No,” Dereck said.

“Trelton,” O’Keefe said, “who lives in 103?”

I stood up behind the door. “Mr. Henderson.”

Dereck said, “Dore—”

“Shuddup,” O’Keefe said. “Yer not seeing her. Tell me about the Henderson guy, Trelton.”

“Retiree,” I said. It felt strange to be hidden behind a door so that I couldn’t see what was going on. “I’m not surprised he let Dereck in. He knew I was seeing him.”

“This ain’t happening again. Shut and lock the door, Trelton, I’m taking the garbage out and then I’m having a talk with Mr. Henderson.”

No!” Dereck yelled. “I have to see Dorelai first.”

“No, ya don’t,” O’Keefe said. “Shut the goddamn door.”

I slammed it shut, flipping the bolt, and pressed myself up against it to look out the peephole.

O’Keefe was hauling a squirming Dereck by the scruff of his shirt down the third floor stairwell. And I could hear doors shutting below. As O’Keefe made his descent with Dereck in tow, my ex-boyfriend’s tone changed from pleading to outrage.

You can’t do this to me,” Dereck said. “She’s MINE! I won’t let you keep her from me!”

As they approached the first floor, their words got too garbled for me to make out. So I ran over to the kitchen window that overlooked the street, to peer through a crack in the closed blinds, and saw O’Keefe drag Dereck down the steps and onto the sidewalk, then shove him at his sports car.

O’Keefe refused to leave the spot he stood on until Dereck got into his car and drove off.

Then he raced up the outside steps three at a time and buzzed me to be let back in.

I pressed my intercom. “So, Dereck’s gone.”

“For now,” O’Keefe said. “I’ll be up after I talk sense into Henderson.”

I buzzed him in.

*

When I let O’Keefe back into my apartment (I’d had time to get my coffee maker started, take a shower, and get dressed), he said, “Henderson ain’t buzzing Dereck in no more. And FYI—yer ex was using Henderson to figure out if ya’d come home.”

I thought back to Dereck’s phone call about La Belle. “So that’s how Dereck knew I’d gotten home early from work.”

“Explain it to me while I cook,” O’Keefe said as he headed toward my kitchen.

I trailed after him, and told the story of Dereck knowing I was home on Thursday night, while wondering if I wanted to hurt O’Keefe’s feelings by telling him I didn’t want him touching any of my kitchen stuff because I didn’t want roach germs on them.

He scrubbed down all four hands with soap and water, then tugged open the fridge door with one hand, while using another to get out a pan, and a third to rummage through my utensil drawer. With the fourth he got out the egg carton.

“Think back on all the times ya saw Dereck,” O’Keefe said as he cracked eggs into a bowl with two arms and got the pan ready with the other two. “Try to remember anything hinky—times he would show up unannounced, or would know things he shouldn’t have.”

The more I recollected Dereck’s surprise visits in the evenings, the more I was forced to acknowledge he’d used Henderson more than once to figure out when I was home.

Shaking paprika and pepper into the bowl, O’Keefe whisked the eggs as butter melted in the pan. “He’s been watching ya and having others spy on ya for him. And he talks about ya like yer a goddamn doll he owns.” He poured the eggs into the sizzling pan. “Ya gotta file a report on him in case ya need a restraining order. I can take ya to meet a guy I know in the Mather PD on Monday.”

I squeezed past him to pour myself a mug of coffee. I didn’t want to deal with the people and conflict involved in filing a report with the police, but I knew O’Keefe was right. Dereck had gone too far by having me spied on. I wrapped my hands around the soothing heat of the mug as I drank.

My cell phone went off, and I put my mug down to check. Incoming text.

Dereck: I love you. Talk 2 me.

Me: Leave me alone.

Dereck: You belong to me.

“Who’s that?” O’Keefe said. He grabbed my phone out of my hands to hold it up to his face while continuing to cook with the other three. “Don’t ever respond to a phone call, text, or email from that asshole again. It’s like pouring gasoline on a raging fire. But save the messages to show to the police.”

My cell phone continued to squawk as Dereck sent more messages. From the angle O’Keefe held it at, I could see all caps and exclamation points were getting used.

“Yer better off not reading this crap,” O’Keefe said as he handed my phone back. “Turn it off for now, and get his number blocked.”

I glanced down at my phone screen as I pressed the OFF button. In all caps was one last text from Dereck: BITCH.

*

Dereck’s texts had taken away my appetite, but O’Keefe coaxed some scrambled eggs and a slice of toast into me, then scarfed up the rest of what he’d cooked, washing it down with another can of beer. Then he cleaned up the pan and dishes, and rinsed out his empty beer and chicken soup cans to stack next to the sink for recycling.

It was about seven-thirty.

“Time to head out,” O’Keefe said as he hefted up his toolkit.

I took one last pass through the apartment, making sure all the windows were closed and locked. But I couldn’t help but notice how the fire escape went up past my bedroom windows to the roof. O’Keefe was right—the security aspects of my apartment sucked. Unless by some miracle it turned out I’d dreamed everything that had happened since Thursday, I was going to have to move.

When we got downstairs and out the foyer, we scanned the street and brownstones from the top of the steps, but there were no Magi around. O’Keefe walked up the street to a 1970s green Plymouth that reminded me a giant toad on wheels.

As I came up to it, I said, “Man, that’s an ugly car.”

He rapped on the metal. “Built like a tank.” Unlocking the trunk, he dumped his equipment inside.

I walked on over to the ugly thing. The trunk held cases of various sizes and shapes. One could easily hide three bodies, maybe four, in there.

O’Keefe slammed the trunk down and got into the driver’s seat. He had to lean over to pop the front passenger door lock. No automatic locks on this old monster. As I pulled open the passenger door, I discovered the interior smelled like The Dive—cigarette smoke and spilled beer.

He pulled out a glowing cell phone (it had what I was beginning to consider as Knossos’ trademark silver-blue aura) from his pocket to check, and grunted to himself at whatever message he read.

I checked the car for magical auras, but saw none. “Did you pick out this car, or did Louie force it on you?”

“My choice,” O’Keefe said as he pocked his phone, then turned the ignition as I got my seatbelt on. “I prefer a car big enough to survive getting rammed.”

“You stick out like a sore thumb in this thing. And there’s no airbag.”

O’Keefe shrugged as he pulled out from the curb.

There’s nothing like riding in a huge car with a human cockroach driving to make you feel like you’ve been taking too many shots of vodka.

I found if I squinted hard, I could almost make out the glamour that made O’Keefe look human to most people.

We’d driven about two blocks when I began to suspect there was something odd about the car’s engine. It had too much pick-up-and-go for an old car; it sounded like it had been modified; and there was an odd control panel where the radio should have been, as well as other extra dials and switches along the driver’s dashboard.

O’Keefe used his middle arms to light a cigarette, then put it in his mouth.

I coughed, heavily, to give him a hint, and hand-rolled my window all the way down. Good thing I’d decided against wearing a suit, and had gone for khaki dress slacks and a blouse instead.

O’Keefe rolled down his own window, then blew smoke out it.

“Do you even get a nicotine rush?” I said.

“Barely.” He shook ash off his cigarette as we waited at a stoplight. “More of a habit kinda thing, ya know?”

I put my elbow up on the passenger door, and took a moment to enjoy the illusion of a summer breeze as the car drove through the sticky air toward downtown. However, the sunlight quickly made my arm feel too hot and I pulled it back in. It was going to be a scorcher today.

Once he’d smoked the cigarette down, he stubbed it out in the car’s ashtray. Then he lit another.

“I’m going to be in a meeting with Louie,” I said. “I’d prefer not to reek of cigarette smoke.” My stomach was getting that fluttery thing that always happened before an interview.

“Dontcha worry,” O’Keefe said. “Louie’s already noticed everyone who rides in my car ends up smelling like cigs. Even when I don’t smoke, clothes suck up the aroma from the seats.” He stubbed the lit cigarette out in the tray.

We swerved down a side street near the downtown plaza and approached Knossos from a direction I rarely used. There was a multistory parking garage on a lot across the street from Knossos, and O’Keefe pulled into it, taking a ticket from the machine.

After the barricade rose, he followed the arrows that led to the garage ramp that curved downward to the underground level.

The damp coolness of underground was a welcome break from the heat. Being a Saturday morning, the level was virtually empty of vehicles. Orange fluorescents lit up the concrete walls and empty parking spots. O’Keefe’s engine sounded loud to me from all the echoes.

At a far corner of the parking lot was another down ramp, this one leading to a sealed metal gate that blocked the way. The ramp was so narrow that only one vehicle could pass through at a time.

O’Keefe touched another ticket machine, but instead of a ticket emerging, magical metallic goo surrounded his hand instead, then let go.

A metal gate lowered behind us, making it impossible for us to back up or for anyone to rush up from behind. Once closed, the metal gate before us rose to expose a dark tunnel. O’Keefe flipped on his lights and drove forward.

We were engulfed in the same silver shimmer that had searched the interior of Louie’s private elevator. The silver magic crawled all over the car and O’Keefe.

At the end of the tunnel a thick steel gate blocked the exit, and only rose after the magical search was finished. Another underground parking lot came into view, much smaller than the other, but in order to reach it we would have to drive through Knossos’ protective aura—I was intrigued to see that Knossos Tower’s magical shielding extended through rock and dirt as well as air.

Once through, O’Keefe jerked a thumb toward the parked array of cars, trucks, and vans. “All owned by AOX. Depending on the job, ya may find yerself assigned a particular vehicle.”

When we turned a tight corner, a row of five sports cars came into view. I wasn’t much into sports cars, but these looked to be chosen for speed, not show. “Don’t go near those,” O’Keefe said. “Those are for company jobs only, not joy rides. Adams and Gomez will throttle anyone who touches them.” From the way he sounded, he’d gotten busted.

“Do you mean Ines Gomez?”

“Nope. Mr. Gomez, mechanic. Ines’ husband.” O’Keefe pulled into a double space to park. “Shy of strangers. Never gonna meet him unless ya join AOX.” He turned off the engine, and the silence was startling after the racket of driving. “Well, Trelton, let’s get ya to Louie’s office before he gets restless and comes down here looking for us.”

*

O’Keefe took me up an elevator (there were several scattered around the parking garage to choose from) whose interior was just like the private elevator I’d taken with Louie and Eli, but it only had two buttons: B and P. O’Keefe pressed the B button.

As we rose, the silver security scan thing happened again, and then the doors opened on the service corridors of the basement.

We moved through the corridors at a fast clip, and I got disoriented. Again, in the distance I could hear the echo of hooves, but this time they were running away from us.

O’Keefe brought me to a silver-glowing steel door, but instead of putting one of his hands on the metal panel, he knocked.

It opened inward to expose to view an executive office done in what I would call “NYC shark attorney” decor—wood paneling, leather cushions, oriental carpet, gilt books on a bookshelf. There were even framed prints of wild ducks and English cottages on the walls. And everything was spotless, with an underlying scent of lemon wood polish. This was how Thanos would do his office once he made partner in his law firm.

The personality of the room was not that of Louie’s at all. Made me feel like I was walking onto the stage set for a play—Mr. Louie McDonough, Executive and Esquire.

And yet it was Louie sitting behind the giant wooden desk, with a metal tray in front of him and an open toolkit by his left elbow, scowling down at the ballerina musical box I’d seen him dissecting just a few weeks back. From within the cracks of the closed box came a white aural glow that made me think of snow glare. The bits he’d laid out on the tray—ballerina, gears, screws, et cetera—had no glow.

I was drawn toward the box, wanting to know what I’d see inside it, and walked up to stand before the desk.

Today Louie was dressed in what looked to be a hand-tailored suit, which meant I was grossly underdressed for this meeting. Not to mention I smelled like I’d been shooting pool in The Dive before coming over.

I wanted to throttle O’Keefe for that last bit.

“Here she is,” O’Keefe said to Louie.

Louie looked up from the box and smiled, standing up to come around from his desk to shake my hand. “Ms. Trelton, good to see you in one piece.”

He’d deliberately used my last name. I had a sudden conviction that this interview was just a formality. As far as he was concerned, I was his employee as soon as I’d walked into his office.

He grabbed a leather chair and pulled it up to his desk. “Please, have a seat.”

Sitting, I became aware that a strong scent of sandalwood lingered on my hand.

As he sat back down, Louie said to O’Keefe, “Go get some rest. I’ve got a job for you this afternoon.”

O’Keefe hesitated. “Ms. Trelton’s had a tough night and morning.”

“I’m aware of everything you’ve reported, but circumstances make waiting dangerous for her.” Louie pushed the tray toward me. “Don’t open the box, yet. O’Keefe, I am doing only the minimum that must be done. But done it must be. Go.”

O’Keefe muttered something, then went out by a different door, a polished wooden one that led into a ritzy receptionist’s area.

There were three doors that led off from this room—two wooden, and the steel one into the service corridor. All had the silver aura I’d come to recognize as a security screen. And on the ceiling, I could see display patterns of tiny silver dots that moved around, some clustering, some by themselves.

It took intense focus, but then I made out faintly glowing maps of the lobby and public basement of Knossos Tower those dots were superimposed on. I suspected I was looking at a readout for the tiny blobs the security field stuck on anyone who entered Knossos.

“You’re not supposed to be able to see that,” Louie said, exasperated.

I twitched, feeling like I’d been caught peeping into someone’s window.

“Haven’t you ever heard about curiosity killing the cat?” Louie said. “I must suppose that your unguarded behavior is because you trust me not to kill you, instead of stupidity or carelessness. There would have been a bit of a scuffle with the Magi last night if you’d behaved so recklessly in front of them as you do with me.”

My mouth went dry. “I’m sorry I looked. You aren’t going to—”

“Kill you? Of course not. That would be a gross mistake on my part, especially since you are of much more use to me alive.” Steepling his fingers, Louie sat back in his chair. “I prefer not to rely on magic to keep secrets.” He held up his palms before me. “My hands are empty.” Then he twisted his left hand around, so that a deck of cards appeared seemingly out of nowhere on his palm. “I didn’t use magic to do it. Magic trick.” The fingers of his left hand expertly fanned out the cards, then flicked them at me.

I instinctively blinked, but instead of cards flying out at me, they had vanished again.

Louie held up his bare left hand before me, turning it so that I could inspect it.

“Not magic,” Louie said. “And I refuse to spoil the trick by telling you how I pulled it off, so don’t bother asking. You may be able to see hidden magic, but your eyes are still only human.” He pulled open a desk drawer, and brought out a blank piece of paper and a gold pen, both of which he shoved across the desk to me.

“What am I to do?” I hoped it wouldn’t be a series of dumb questions like “Why are manhole covers round?” and such.

“I want you to open this musical box, and sketch for me the pattern you find inside.”

For a few seconds my sweaty hands hovered over the lid of the box. There was something deadly about the glow of the aura, and I wondered if Louie had lied about not wanting to kill me.

Taking a deep breath, I flipped open the lid to look inside.

The interior sides were still covered with white satin, but the bottom had been stripped bare to expose the wood underneath. Painted onto the wood was a snowflake pattern that emitted the snow glare.

From the box there came a puff of air smelling of cedar and ice.

I sketched the pattern as best I could. While I did so, I asked, “What exactly does this music box do, anyway? You said it did a nasty trick.”

“It slowly ensnares the mind of the recipient. When the box was opened, the target found herself in a vision where she was wearing the ball gown while skating on the lake with a prince to the music of the box. In the end she became utterly addicted to it and sat on her couch for days to experience the music box’s dream. Not eating, not drinking, fouling herself. She only survived because a friend noticed the stench and had the landlord open her flat.”

I spun my sketch across the desk to Louie.

He picked it up and looked at it, then nodded. “Correctly done. Only a magic wielder of great power and dedicated training ought be able to see those hidden marks.”

The snobbery was unintended, but there nonetheless. I wasn’t a magic wielder of great power and dedicated training. My breathing sped up, but I quelled the hurt and anger I felt so it wouldn’t show.

I said, “Did you figure out who gave the box to her?”

“Yes,” Louie said. “The culprit was apprehended.”

“And the maker?”

“That is confidential.” Louie reached over to flip the lid shut, and pushed the tray away. He dug a stone out of his pocket and wove with his hands a silver aura around it. He then put the stone on the desk between us. “Describe to me what you see.”

I did so.

When I was done, Louie said, “What you are seeing is hidden magic of mine. Magic that very few can see.” He touched the stone, and the aura went away. Then he held out his left hand, palm upright, fingers curved as if he held an invisible ball. Abruptly streaks of light crackled between his fingers and thumb. “This is the sort of magic everyone in the world can see, even those with no magical ability at all, like that prat, Jake. Looks like lightning. I can severely injure an attacker with it.”

He brought his hands together and made motions as if he were making a snowball, but instead it was a ball of magical lightning that crackled as it grew between his palms. He stood up from his desk to show me the baseball-sized lightning thing he had created.

“Catch,” he said as he flung it at me.

************** End of Chapter 7 *****************

Chapter 8 will go up next Tuesday. (Note: If you are reading this post after May 29, 2013, click here to go to Cubicle‘s main page on this website so you can find Chapter 8.)

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

Have a great week, L.M.

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic – Chapter 6: Zaliel’s Magi

As some of you probably noticed, instead of stopping at Chapter 4 of Cubicles, Blood, and Magic, we went onward to Chapter 5. I’ve decided to post to Chapter 10, and then switch to posting excerpts of new stories coming out. If you missed the earlier chapters, click here.

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 6:

Zaliel’s Magi

The threat in Peter’s voice as he spoke to Eli in the busy diner—that he would expose Eli’s true identity if he refused to cooperate—was clear. Nervousness made my coffee taste too bitter to keep drinking, so I pushed it away.

Eli jerked a thumb at the two Magi that stood next to our table. “This is Peter and Beth. Peter, Beth, this is an old acquaintance of mine, Dorelai, and these are her coworkers. Dorelai, if you would do the honors?”

“With pleasure,” I said, though I felt nothing of the sort. I made the introductions to my coworkers as abruptly as I could without risking Peter getting pissed off.

At the end of the intros, Peter said, “I hear you all have been having trouble with severe nightmares.”

“What’s it to you?” Tim said. He folded his arms over his chest.

“I noticed the dreamcatcher you were given,” Peter said, lifting a finger off the table to point at the gift box. “I think you will find that your bad dreams will not come back.”

“You know,” Tim said, “it’s rude to listen in on other people’s conversations.”

Peter smiled, making Monica give a faint gasp of admiration at his stunning looks.

Tim and Vadin weren’t moved, but Stuart did blink once, then looked away. For whatever reason, Stuart’s open resistance to Peter’s charisma moved me. I knew he loved Theo, but here I was seeing it firsthand.

Peter said to us, “Sometimes a dream can feel more real than reality while you’re trapped in it.”

“Yes.” Monica swallowed twice. “There were times I felt I was trapped inside those awful dreams.”

I saw within the golden halos above both Magi’s heads that eyes (like those on the buildings) were appearing.

Eli gripped his water glass too tight as he took a sip.

I wanted Peter and Beth to get lost. I didn’t want the Magi knowing anything about me or what was happening to me. And with each passing second, the magical eyes were getting bigger above their heads, as if Zaliel were approaching from a great distance to listen in on our conversation.

“Dorelai had some terrible dreams too,” Monica said.

Alarmed, I said, “I think it was subliminal suggestions from everything I saw with you and Tim.” The whirling pupils of the Zaliel eyes above Peter made me want to get up from the table and flee, but I made myself sip my coffee instead.

I watched as Peter froze up a moment, as if listening to a voice spoken within his own mind. Then he said to me, “You’re a bit thin, Dorelai, like Tim and Monica. All of you look like you’ve been through a bad time lately.”

“Yes, they have,” Eli said, urgent. “Tim and Monica have resigned from their jobs at Granite Hills. So far, the nightmare problems have been confined to their particular team.”

This had Peter again freezing for a moment, listening to that inner voice.

Eli was tense, watching both Peter and Beth, never taking his gaze off them. It hit me that he was feeding them information that would be easy to gather from our group—so as to seem cooperative—but misdirecting Peter and Beth into thinking I’d had a typical reaction to nightmare dust.

“It’s been a stressful spring and summer for all of us at work,” I said. “I admit I’ve had awful dreams with all that has been going on.”

Peter said to Beth, “Go on outside. I’ll catch up.”

Beth hesitated, but then Zaliel’s eyes flared in her golden halo as if it were speaking to her, and she left, but kept looking back on her way out.

Peter grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the booth even though we hadn’t invited him to do so. He laid his glowing fingers on the table, spread out. Tendrils of golden light crept out of his fingertips to wriggle toward all of us, except for Eli.

Eli picked up his empty coffee cup and saucer, and slammed both down on the tendrils crawling across the table. He’d struck with an accuracy that could only come from being able to see Peter’s magic. “I’m sorry Peter, but it is rude for you to impose on them like this. There are protocols that ought to be followed.”

Peter scowled, and the golden light burned even brighter around him; it seemed whatever part of Zaliel he carried longed to reach through Peter to emerge into the diner. He made no move to get up, but did pull the golden tendrils back into his fingers. “You are correct,” Peter said, sneering, “there are protocols.” Abruptly Zaliel’s presence faded away from around him.

Stuart gestured for our waitress to bring him the check.

Eli’s and Peter’s behavior had to have looked weird to my coworkers, for as far as they could see, Eli’d slammed his saucer and cup down for no reason near Peter’s fingers. So I was not surprised when they all rummaged around for their wallets. What did surprise me was that Peter made no effort to charm them into staying. All he did was keep sneering at Eli.

Tim, not needing to pay, was the first to make his excuse to escape. “I need to get home. Betsy and the kids will be waiting.”

Monica and Vadin slipped out of the booth to let Tim out, and didn’t bother to sit back down, instead giving cash to Stuart. After quick goodbyes, the three of them left.

So it was down to Eli, Peter, Stuart, and me.

I gave Stuart the money for my meal, and Eli did likewise. Stuart then paid the check with indecent haste. He didn’t even bother to finish up the last of the pot of coffee as he normally would. Then he said to me, while taking turns to stare at Eli and Peter, “Well, Dorelai, we should head to the car.”

“I can give you a ride, if you’d like,” Eli said. “My car is close by.”

“Sure,” I said. “Stuart, I’ll be fine heading home with Samuel.”

Stuart pinched the bridge of his nose like he was coming down with a bad headache—making me realize he was worried I was on the rebound from Dereck.

I said to Stuart, “Samuel and I need to catch up on what he’s been doing these last few years in New York City. He’s an old acquaintance of my mother’s.”

That helped Stuart to relax. A little. He knew my mother would make “Samuel’s” life hell in NYC if he did anything to distress me. “Then let’s go,” Stuart said to us.

You go,” Peter said to Stuart. “I need to talk business with Samuel for a few minutes.”

Stuart said, “You—”

Eli put a light hand on Stuart’s shoulder. “Peter’s obviously had a bad day at work. I’ll take care of it.”

Stuart looked at me. “Go on home,” I said. “I’ll be fine.” I sipped at my cold coffee.

With that, Stuart gave up on trying to protect us and left the diner.

“Outside, ‘Samuel,'” Peter said. “Your friend can finish her coffee.”

*

While I sat at the empty booth, Eli stood with Peter and Beth outside the diner in the muggy heat, and despite Peter’s gesturing for them to go someplace else, Eli stayed put. The only concession he would make to the two Magi was to move further away from the diner entrance. But Eli made sure I could still see him through the diner’s storefront windows.

I’d already entered both the AOX and O’Keefe numbers into my cell phone. My phone was on my lap with my thumb hovering above the speed dial number for AOX; if Eli disappeared from my sight I’d make the call while rushing to get outside.

Finally Peter gave up trying to browbeat Eli into going off with him and Beth, and the glow around Peter brightened as Zaliel again surged to the fore. And Peter got a stiff frozen look that made me wonder if he was speaking with his own voice any longer.

Whatever Peter/Zaliel was saying, it made Eli angry, for Eli drew himself up, and that’s when I noticed Eli was taller than Peter by two inches. The rabbi stared straight at the glow above Peter’s head, saying something forcefully to Zaliel’s whirling eyes.

Peter/Zaliel got mad, and it looked like they were shouting at Eli.

I rushed for the diner entrance and shoved the door open.

That got Peter/Zaliel to shut up.

I kept the door propped open with my hand (so that the diners inside could hear) as I called out in a whining tone to Eli, “What’s taking so long? I’ve got grocery shopping to do before the sun sets.”

Zaliel retreated from within Peter, as Eli said to them, “Our conversation is at an end. Dorelai is waiting.” He spun around to join me.

Peter gave me a huge predatory smile that made my skin crawl instead of charming me as it was supposed to. “You’ve got such a unique name—Dorelai. It suits you. What’s your last name?”

No point in keeping it hidden. They’d dig it up easily enough. “Trelton.”

Caressing his lips with a finger, Peter nodded. “You’ve got beautiful eyes.”

“I hate to cut this chat short,” I said, “but my fridge is empty, and I have a lot of work to do tonight.”

“I look forward to seeing you again, Dorelai Trelton,” Peter said. “I happen to work near the Chesterton.”

I looked hard and long at Beth. She’d turned her face away slightly, and there was a furrow in her brow as if watching Peter try to pick me up pained her.

And it was all too clear to me that Peter’s supposed interest in me was just an act to pump me for information about Eli and Jake, and an attempt to get under Eli’s skin. Aloud, I said, “Don’t bet on it.” I waggled my fingers at Peter and Beth. “Nice meeting you.” Not. I took hold of Eli’s elbow. “Let’s go.”

Eli and Peter shared one last look of mutual loathing, then Eli led me off to his car. While Peter and Beth did follow us, they made no move to stop us from getting into Eli’s battered compact car to drive off.

*

“Why do I get the feeling,” I said to Eli as he drove, “that Peter is going to keep showing up like a bad rash.”

“That’s his way.”

“He’s such a goddamn scum-bucket. Fuc—sorry,” I barely stopped myself in time from saying rebbe, “I forgot whom I was speaking to.”

“No apology needed.”

“I’m sorry about dragging you to a grocery store. I do need groceries, though.”

Eli flicked on his right turn signal. “We’re being followed. A silver Mercedes.”

I took a quick peek back as Eli made the turn. Beth was driving the car with Peter in the passenger seat. “Fu—frick. Don’t they have anything better to do than stalking you?”

Eli grunted, and I recalled I’d better watch what I said outside Knossos.

“Well, they’re going to find watching us really, really boring,” I said.

Then my cell phone went off. My mother.

I didn’t want to answer it, but if I didn’t, she’d keep calling me back until she reached me. She knew how involved I could get with coding, forgetting about my phone.

“Hey, Deborah,” I said as I smooshed the cell phone against my ear. My parents had raised us to call them “Nicholas” and “Deborah” instead of “Dad” and “Mom.” My brothers and I got in the habit of calling them “Father” and “Mother” behind their backs as an act of rebellion.

“Darling, how are you?” Mother sounded blue.

A car alarm went off on the street we were driving down, and I covered the mouthpiece to block it out until we were past. “Sorry about that. I’m riding to the grocery store. I can’t stay on long, the sun will set in less than an hour.”

My first tactical mistake. I should have never mentioned I was paying attention to sunset on a Friday evening.

“Oh?” Mother was intrigued. “What are you doing?”

I cringed, and was glad Mother couldn’t see it. She would have known something was up then and there.

To distract her, I said, “I broke up with Dereck.”

“You did what?” Then she added, “Darling, that’s the best news I’ve heard all month.” She was so excited she began to bellow into her phone. “I’m so glad you did. He’s a schlump, not nearly as smart as you are. You’re better off without him. Never marry. It’s just a burden and a heartache for women. I have enough grandkids through your brothers.”

I took my phone away from my ear to stare at it in shock.

Unlike Mother, Father didn’t care if I ever married or not. Nor did he consider me to be as gifted as my brothers, and so hadn’t objected as Mother had when I’d “thrown myself away” after MIT by moving to Mather instead of going to Silicon Valley or New York.

For Father, “brilliant” and “woman” never belonged in the same sentence.

“Dorelai?” Mother called out. “Are you still there?”

I put the phone back to my ear. “Sorry, just in shock about you saying I should never marry.”

“There’s too much compromise involved for the woman.”

Clearly Mother and Father were having one of their fights again. Every August, as the season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approached, Mother got restless and Father got defensive. Deep down inside, Mother wanted to go to shul, but Father would fiercely object to it.

My mother’s parents sat shiva for her when she married my father, and both had died without ever relenting to see us. Father never let her forget that; it was one of his favorite rants on the evils of the religious mindset.

I drew my attention back to my mother. “Maybe I’ll find a guy who can compromise.”

“Hah, not likely.” Mother ripped something open, and then there was a chewing sound. A chocolate bar, unless I missed my guess.

Eli made a left turn, and I realized we were approaching the grocery store I’d asked him to take me to. I covered my mouthpiece to say to Eli, “Just one more block. Storefront with green trim.”

“Who are you talking to?” Mother asked.

“Someone I ran into.”

“Who?”

“Samuel Parisi.”

“Is he Jewish?”

“Yes.” I smacked my forehead. Stupid of me not to lie about that.

“Is he married?”

“That’s none of our business, Deborah.”

“Ahhhhh, so he’s single.” Mother sounded intrigued. Not good, not good at all. “Well, I’m glad you’re getting to meet some new people. I’ll let you get back to your companion and grocery shopping, darling, and call you Sunday.”

She hung up before I could get my thoughts together. Then it hit me.

Shit. She’d be digging up what she could on Samuel Parisi. There weren’t that many Jews in Mather. Sooner or later, she’d discover no such person existed.

“What’s wrong?” Eli asked.

I stared, unseeing, through the windshield. “That was my mother on the phone.”

The steering wheel jerked under Eli’s hands.

I groaned. “Oh, she’s going to have a fit once she realizes what I’m up to.”

He wanted to talk about this, but having to keep up the persona of Samuel made it impossible. Though if anyone had been listening in on my conversation with my mother, it wouldn’t take much to figure out that Mother had no clue who Samuel Parisi was.

No matter how I looked at it, Eli and I were seriously screwed.

*

Eli insisted on pushing the grocery cart for me, saying that I needed to rest after such an exhausting day. Peter and Beth hadn’t bothered to follow us in, instead just sitting in their sedan in the store parking lot.

“Do you mind if I purchase a few things to pay for?” Eli said as he grabbed four six-packs of the cheapest, nastiest beer in the store to put in our cart next to the carrots and turkey bacon.

At the look on my face, he laughed. “They’re not for me. They’re for a friend. We also need cans of chicken soup.”

On impulse, I grabbed a bottle of red wine before heading down the next aisle. And on the way to checkout, two loaves of French bread from the bakery.

As soon as he saw the bread, Eli figured out what I had planned. “Are you sure?” he said.

“I’m an atheist, but I wouldn’t mind if you say Kiddush.”

Eli’s face scrunched up for a second, but he got the pain under control before tears could form.

That’s when I knew I’d been right in guessing that he’d had to light the Shabbat candles and say Kiddush alone on Fridays since being shunned.

“I’ve already got plenty of candles to choose from,” I said. I knew that for the mitzvah of Shabbat, Mother would forgive Eli—a little—when the whole Samuel Parisi thing collapsed.

*

As we parked on the street near my brownstone, I saw Dereck sitting on the steps with a bouquet of red roses. Strangely, he wasn’t talking into his ear clip. Just brooding.

I actually felt embarrassed that Eli would see this guy.

As we got the groceries out of the trunk to carry, I whispered to Eli, “That’s Dereck on the steps.”

“Ah,” he whispered back, “the guy you broke up with.” He looked behind us, and I followed his gaze to see that Beth and Peter had parked a few spots down from us.

Great, just what I didn’t need, an audience.

“Give me a few minutes to reason with Dereck, then come on up the steps,” I said. There were few enough bags of groceries that I could leave the carrying to Eli while I dealt with Dereck. I dug around in my purse as I walked toward the brownstone, shoving aside my wallet and gum and pens and a packet of tissues, so that I could pull out my keys before I reached the steps.

Dereck stood up, and blocked my way as I climbed. “Dorelai, I want to talk to you. Alone.”

“I told you we were through. There’s nothing to say.”

Dereck made no move to step aside.

I sighed in frustration. “I’m busy. I’ve got work to attend to tonight. Now go away.”

He jerked a thumb at Eli lugging the groceries. “That doesn’t look like ‘work’ to me.”

“He’s just a friend. I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t want to go out with you anymore.”

He shoved the roses in my face and I tripped down the steps, falling on my hip and hands.

The brownstone foyer door whipped open, and the roach-guy jumped out, twisting Dereck’s closest arm behind his back.

Ow!” Dereck yelled.

I became aware that the roses were scattered around me, my palms were stinging where they’d hit the sidewalk concrete, and an empty-handed Eli was kneeling beside me. “Are you all right?” he said. “Can you move?”

I was able to stagger back to my feet without Eli’s offered help. But from the soreness I knew I’d have a bruise on my hip.

Dereck was staring at me open-mouthed. He came back to himself to call out, “It was an accident!”

The roach said in a male human voice, “Likely story, asshole. Ms. Trelton asked ya to leave.”

Dereck protested. “I was just—”

“The lady said she don’t wanna date ya no more.”

The roach-guy hauled Dereck down the steps to his sports car while Dereck yelled at him, “You have no right to—”

Roach-guy shoved Dereck onto the hood of his sports car. “Get lost before I mess up yer face.”

Dereck’s face worked as he looked back at me, then he said, “We aren’t done talking yet, Dorelai. I’ll come back another day.” He got into his sports car.

Good riddance!” the roach-guy yelled at Dereck as he drove off.

As one, my gaze and Eli’s went to that of the parked Mercedes. The two Magi were standing on the sidewalk next to the car; they’d obviously seen and heard everything.

Roach-guy noticed at whom we were staring, and swore long and hard as he threw out the roses and gathered up the dropped grocery bags with his four arms.

Eli ran over to help, and soon they’d herded me up the steps and into the foyer before them. As soon as the foyer door swung shut, he said to Eli, “When I saw him push her—”

“Dorelai,” Eli said, “this is Mr. O’Keefe.”

“Hi,” I said as I used my key on the inner door of the foyer, shouldering it open for them.

Eli pointed at a metal toolkit sitting under the apartment mailboxes in the foyer. He said to O’Keefe, “Let’s swap. I’ll take the groceries, you grab your toolkit.”

O’Keefe handed all the groceries back over to Eli, then hefted the toolkit. “Can ya climb?” he said to me. “Ya hit the ground hard.”

My palms and hip were throbbing. “I’m fine.”

“Lemme go up first,” O’Keefe said. “Apartment 302, right?”

“Right,” I said.

“Gimme me yer keys, and I’ll make sure it’s safe.” The arm he held out had the outer shell and hairs of a roach, but at the end was a human palm with a knifelike thumb. I dropped my keys into his palm, and as his hand wrapped around them I saw there was a thick shell on the outside of his hand.

O’Keefe rushed up the stairs with a speed I’d be hard-pressed to match.

I lived on the top floor, which I liked because the skylight above the stairway made my stairwell bright during the day. As I slowly climbed the stairs with Eli, I heard the echo of my front door being opened and the rattle of O’Keefe’s toolkit hitting the ground. Then there was the racket of bangs and squeaks as O’Keefe searched my apartment.

When we reached my door, I found it propped open with O’Keefe’s toolkit. Eli stopped me before I could enter. “We need to wait for O’Keefe,” he said.

O’Keefe appeared at the doorway to my bedroom. “All clear. C’mon in, and lock the door behind ya.”

I locked the door as Eli hauled the groceries into the kitchen.

I said to O’Keefe, “I haven’t thrown out the garbage yet. The manila envelope and letter from Thursday night should still in the kitchen trash.” I surveyed my dining room and living room—nothing lying around had any sort of suspicious aura. Everything was the same as it had been this morning.

It was only me that was different.

O’Keefe grabbed a silver-glowing box out of his toolbox and followed me into the kitchen.

I grabbed my tongs from where they lay amongst the dirty dishes in the sink, and handed them to O’Keefe, saying, “I used these to move the letter and envelope around.”

Eli and I put groceries away as O’Keefe rooted through my garbage with the tongs.

When I grabbed the first six-pack of beer to put it in the fridge, Eli said, “You don’t need to do that. O’Keefe prefers it warm.” Eli made a face. “He pours it into a mug and microwaves it.”

“Bleck,” I said. “So the cans of chicken soup are for him, too?”

“Yup,” O’Keefe said. He fished the envelope from Thursday night out, to flourish with a triumphant “Ha!” Pulling it closer to his eyes to study (but making sure not to touch it), he then shoved it into the silver-glowing box. Then he fished out the letter, again taking his time to study it closely, before putting it and the tongs in the box as well.

“That was too damn easy,” O’Keefe said. “That evidence should’ve been stolen. If ya don’t mind, Ms. Trelton, I’m gonna take the entire bag of trash.” He pulled the garbage bag top together and tied it shut. “Gonna put it near the door.”

The sky through the kitchen window was fading to dusk.

I yanked open the cabinet under the sink to pull out two candles while Eli took the bread and wine to the table.

“Good thinking,” O’Keefe said. “We could all do with a drink after that shitfest downstairs.”

Eli came back into the kitchen to fill two cups with water, and took them and a hand towel to the dining room. Then he came back in to ask, “Napkins?”

“Upper cabinet to the left of the sink,” I said as I dug a box of matches out of a drawer.

Eli took the matches, candles, and cloth napkins out while I grabbed three tall water glasses to use (I had no wine glasses).

When I came to the dining room table, I saw that Eli had covered the two loaves with a cloth napkin. He took a glass from me, uncorked the wine, and filled it to the brim. He then paused, and reached up with both hands to touch the top of his bare head. “Do you have a hat?”

“Let me see if anything would fit.” I went over to the hall closet and opened it. There was a summer straw hat that would match his tourist get-up. I snagged it.

At the sight of it, Eli sighed, but took it to put on his head. He said, “Do you know Hebrew?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll pray in both.” He called out to O’Keefe in the kitchen, “Do you want to join us?”

“Nope. I’m gonna open up a can of soup to eat. But I’ll help ya make a dent in that wine when yer done.”

Eli lit the two candles, waved his hands over them as if he would pull the candlelight from them to his eyes, covered his eyes with his palms, and recited the blessing over the candles.

Once done, Eli uncovered his eyes, then picked up the glass of wine and began to pray Kiddush, first in Hebrew, then repeating in English so I’d understand what was said. I felt no presence of anything godlike, but the beauty of the words as Eli said them moved me.

“… Blessed are You, Adonai, Who sanctifies Shabbat,” Eli finished.

“Amen,” I said.

Eli gestured for us to sit. He took two gulps of the wine, then poured half of what was left from his tall water glass into another glass for me.

O’Keefe came out of the kitchen with an opened can of chicken soup and large spoon to sit at the table with us.

Picking up the wine bottle, Eli filled the last glass for O’Keefe.

I lifted my glass in salute to the two of them, and downed the Kiddush wine in a few minutes. Eli did the same.

O’Keefe swigged back his own half-empty glass in seconds.

Eli filled up our three glasses to the brim. “No more for you and me after this round,” he said to me, “we have to stay relatively levelheaded. O’Keefe has a natural talent for consuming large amounts of alcohol without getting drunk.”

“Ya betcha,” O’Keefe said, and swigged down his second glass.

“A good wine is supposed to be savored,” I said, “not chugged.” My insides were starting to get a warm tingly feeling. I tipped my glass to drink deeply.

Eli indicated that we should wash our hands with the cups of water and hand towel, and then he uncovered the two bread loaves and recited a blessing over them. He passed around chunks of the French bread for us to eat. I still felt stuffed from dinner, so I just nibbled on mine between wine swallows.

O’Keefe dunked his bread chunk in the can of soup before eating it. Like the rest of him, his mouth was a bizarre mixture of human and roach. Some drops of soup fell from his tongue onto the table. “I’ll clean up,” he said.

It had been a rough day, but I was starting to feel really, really relaxed and mellow. “No problem.” I rapped the wood of the table. “The wood’s stained and polished.” Then I began to giggle, and covered my mouth with my hands until it stopped. “I can’t believe that just came out of my mouth. That’s why I don’t drink. It makes me act stoopid.”

“You’re not stupid,” Eli said. He sipped at his wine. “Not even when inebriated. What you are is exhausted and overwhelmed.”

I looked into my glass to find it empty. I looked over at the bottle, but Eli pushed it out of reach. Sighing, I nudged my glass away so that I could fold my arms on the table and put my chin on my hands. My eyelids drooped.

“That was a mistake on my part,” Eli said to O’Keefe. “I should have realized it’d make her sleepy.” He got up from his seat, leaving his barely drunk glass behind, and came around to my side. “Sorry to do this, Dorelai, but we need to talk a few things over before you go to sleep.”

Grumbling, I followed Eli out into the living room as O’Keefe got up to follow.

I sank into my recliner chair, and pulled the lever so that my feet were propped up. Having my feet up felt soooooo good, and my hip had stopped throbbing. Or maybe it still hurt, and I just couldn’t feel it.

O’Keefe picked up my TV controller from the coffee table. He turned my TV on and set the volume to an absurdly high level. Then he and Eli leaned in close.

Eli said, “Dorelai, for your safety, O’Keefe is going to sleep on your couch tonight.”

I grinned, which felt weird. “I feel like I’m in a Kafka story.”

“So you … don’t object?” Eli asked.

A round of giggling escaped me and I saw no reason to stop it.

Eli palmed his face.

“Nice going, Rabbi, she’s sloshed,” O’Keefe said. “Didn’t know ya had it in ya. Chances are she’ll remember this conversation in the morning, but this ain’t the time to discuss matters of state.” He leaned forward so that I could see his strange face up close. Human eyes in a roach’s head. Wow. “Ms. Trelton, can I bunk on yer couch tonight—yes or no?”

“Yes,” I said. I clapped my hands. This was hilarious. “Ask me another question. This is fun!”

Eli groaned.

“Rabbi Eli, quit it,” O’Keefe said. “Louie said to get her home safe, and ya did. Considering what she’s been through today, this is exactly what she needs right now. Ya smuggle the evidence on over to Knossos, then get some shut-eye. I’m gonna nuke myself a beer and watch some TV. Trelton, is it okay if I watch TV?”

“Yes!” I said. O’Keefe’s accent made me feel like a kid again.

“Help me get her to bed,” O’Keefe said to him.

More giggles poured out of my mouth as they pulled me out of the recliner. Standing upright felt like too much work, so I let them put my arms over their shoulders to haul me into my bedroom.

At the sight of my bedcover, I said, “Bed! Yes!”

“Drop her on three,” O’Keefe said over my head. “One … two … three.”

I dropped back onto the bliss of a soft bedcover, and then my feet were being lifted and dropped to bounce on the bed as well.

Wonderful. I wanted to say it, but my mouth was too tired to move.

*

I awoke in the dark to find I was on top of my bedcover, and I heard the soft sound of my TV going. Took me a couple of seconds to figure out how I’d gotten there.

I was in my work clothes and shoes, and a fuzzy lingering taste of wine was in my mouth.

The recollection of my behavior made me wince. I’d been as giggly and silly as anyone I’d seen at a college party.

Rolling onto my side, I got off the bed to go to the closed bedroom door. I slowly turned the doorknob to pull it open and peeked out.

O’Keefe was sitting on my couch with his feet (wearing dress shoes) propped up on my coffee table. He wore a pinstripe suit modified to fit his body with its four arms. There was an unlit cigarette in his mouth that he was moving around like a toothpick.

And a semiautomatic pistol on his lap.

He was watching a bucktoothed chef flipping pancakes on a cooking channel.

I looked over toward the dining room; the light of the TV made it easy to see everything. The table was all clear and clean of anything from the Shabbat shenanigans. And my apartment smelled a bit like a brewery. O’Keefe had obviously been microwaving beer while I slept.

The bag of trash was gone from near my front door. Eli must have taken all the evidence over to Knossos. But O’Keefe’s opened toolkit remained.

“Dawn ain’t gonna be here for another two hours, Trelton,” O’Keefe said around his cigarette. “Go back to bed.”

I decided I would rather find out what O’Keefe might say if I stuck around.

************** End of Chapter 6 *****************

Chapter 7 will go up next Tuesday. (Note: If you are reading this post after May 21, 2013, click here to go to Cubicle‘s main page on this website so you can find Chapter 7.)

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

See you next time, L. M.

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic – Chapter 5: Spying on Jake

We’ve reached Chapter 5  from Cubicles, Blood, and Magic. If you missed the earlier chapters, click here. This Tuesday we start with Dorelai beginning to spy on Jake. Here is the entire fifth 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 5:

Spying on Jake

Somehow I kept my rage hidden as I weaved on my feet from exhaustion down the cubicle aisle toward Jake. My fatigue was getting worse, messing with my movements, but that was a good thing since it might make Jake think the nightmare dust was finally working, and so he’d hold off on trying to give me another dose.

Jake’s brow furrowed in concern, but his eyes were alert, studying my body language. “Dorelai, you feeling okay?”

Stephanie rolled her chair over to pop her head out of her cubicle to look at me. “Hey, you don’t look so good.”

“I’m exhausted,” I said. “I wish we still had that couch to crash on.”

“You poor thing,” Stephanie said. “Maybe you’re coming down with whatever Tim and Monica had.” She leaned forward to whisper to me, “Go put your feet up in the second north conference room. No one is in there for the rest of the day.”

“Thanks for the tip,” I said. “I’ll do that.” I turned to make my way toward my cubicle so I could leave a quick message for Tim on where I was.

Jake hurried up to walk beside me. I sneezed from the cologne he must’ve put on after lunch to get ready for the farewell dinner.

Once my sneezing stopped, some perverse urge made me say, “I had the most horrific dream last night.”

Jake twitched at that. He asked me, a little too eager, “What was it?”

“Most of it I can’t remember,” I said, “but in one I dreamed that all the laptops on this floor came alive, flapping around like bats, and grabbed hold of you. They clamped onto your limbs and yanked you apart like a wishbone. Blood gushed from your torn joints like water.” I enjoyed how Jake turned green at this. “It was the most awful thing I’d ever seen. I had to flip on my light and sit upright in bed for a while, and remind myself it was all in my head.”

“That’s horrible,” Jake said. “Were you able to get back to sleep?”

“I had to listen to soothing music for an hour, but I finally did drift off. Had more nightmares I can’t remember.”

“Sorry to hear it.” Jake still looked disturbed by my description of his bloody death. Good.

 *

Someone shook my shoulder to wake me, making me jump, and I nearly rolled off the conference room chairs I was propped up on.

It was Tim looming over me. Up close I could see how the bruised dark circles once under his eyes were now faint purple smudges. Also, his face had filled out a little under his cheekbones.

“It’s time to go.” Tim held up his cell phone clock for me to see. “See, it’s quitting time. Mashed potatoes await.”

Yum, mashed potatoes,” Monica said from somewhere nearby. “I’m ravenous.”

I rubbed my eyes, trying to ignore how my mouth tasted like Xu’s examination room, and turned my head to see my coworkers (except for Jake) peering into the conference room. For an instant, I wondered if I’d dreamed the day’s events. But when I glanced toward the conference room windows, I saw that Knossos still burned bright.

Jake’s voice carried from outside the room. From his pleading tone he had to be talking to Veronica. “—and we’ll be there by five-thirty, I promise. If you get there first, tell the waitress you’re with Tim’s party.”

Why the hell was Jake bringing Veronica to our dinner for Tim?

Maybe for the same reason I’m bringing Rabbi Eli.

I wondered if she knew about Jake’s penchant for using nightmare dust to get ahead at work.

Tim held out a hand and helped yank me up off the chairs. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he said. “One of us could drive you home if you aren’t up for this.” (I didn’t own a car. Mather had a good public transportation system, and I’d been trying to build up my savings.)

My left hand ached where the catheter had been, but my head was clearing. And I was ravenous. I’d have the energy for The Silver Diner and my “accidental” meeting with Eli. “I’m feeling better,” I said. “Just need to get my things.” And Tim’s present.

They followed me back to our cubicle area, and we all listened to Jake’s part of his conversation with Veronica, which went like this: “Are you bringing the invitations? … (sounding disappointed) So you are. … It’s just that they don’t know Charles, and well, your brother is a little—of course I trust your judgment. … I love you, you know that. …” Jake sat down at his desk as his conversation turned into an argument about what he could get Charles for his birthday.

There was only one reason why my coworkers and I would be invited by Veronica to a birthday party for her brother: she needed a pretext to get close to those of us who had been poisoned by Jake.

I had to head off with the others for the elevators without Jake, but to my relief he raced after us, cell phone pressed against his ear, arguing with Veronica.

My eavesdropping soon told me that Dr. Charles Wilcox from Boston was a utter snob about what he would accept as a birthday gift. He preferred works of fine art. Jake kept trying to come up with something he could get Charles without going broke.

It made absolutely no sense for us to be invited to Charles’ birthday party. Why even bother with such a lame setup in the first place?

Unless, of course, Charles was somehow involved with the nightmare dust as well.

A coffee table book about Monet was shot down by Veronica (Jake grimaced at this) as well as a limited edition print by a well-known Mather artist. Also a firm “No” to a small painting from the Mather City Arts Collective on 5th Street.

While we were all crammed in the elevator, going down, Stuart said in a fake accent to Jake, “I say old chap, tell the lady you’ll acquire for dear Charles a ravishing poster of a Thomas Kinkade painting.”

We all sniggered despite ourselves.

Jake snorted in trying to hold back a laugh.

Veronica had overheard Stuart, and yelled so loud we could make out the words. “Who said that?” Jake held his cell phone away from his ear, wincing, making it even easier for everyone to hear her. “Are your moronic buddies making fun of Charles?”

Stuart plucked the cell phone out of Jake’s hand, and said into it (this time in the manner of a British butler), “Hullo, m’lady. I fear Master Jakeson is indisposed from an earache due to your dulcet tones. Perhaps he may call upon you presently?”

Jake had gotten his hearing back, and tried to grab his phone away, which Stuart evaded by twisting around.

The elevator dinged, the doors opening onto the lobby. I pressed the button to hold the doors open so that we could all get out at our leisure. No one wanted to miss the rest of Stuart’s mischief.

Stuart said (while fending off Jake’s attempts to grab his phone back), “Really, m’lady, there’s no need to be cross. I’ve served the young master for a right number of years. Oh, wait, I see Master Jakeson has his hearing back. Here you go, sir.” He held out the cell phone, which Jake snatched out of his hand.

We got off the elevator as Jake was saying, “No, I did not plan that prank. That was Stuart. He likes to pull gags like that on occasion.” Jake hunched over the phone. “No, I am not going to complain to Ed.” He barely ducked away from knocking into two secretaries.

That’s when I noticed glowing blonde guy lurking in the lobby, pretending he was waiting for someone.

He covertly watched Jake, and moved to pass near him as Jake approached the lobby doors.

I kept walking, but slowed so that I could observe Jake as he passed the glowing blonde guy. There was no sign on Jake’s part that he recognized the guy. But then, he was too busy arguing with Veronica on the phone to notice what was going on around him.

I made small talk with Monica as we passed the guy.

Louie had mentioned that the Magi would be after Jake.

Monica nudged me in the side. She whispered, “Did you see that blonde guy back there? He was gorgeous.”

“Speak softer, or he’ll hear you,” I whispered back as I shoved open the lobby door, letting in the racket of honking horns.

It was no surprise to me that both the street vendor and homeless woman were nowhere to be seen. Chances were I’d see them at some point trailing Jake, I was sure of it.

We were walking to The Silver Diner since it was only a couple blocks away. We’d only gone half a block through the heavy pedestrian traffic when Monica looked over her shoulder to say something to Vadin, then whipped around to nudge me in the side again.

“He’s following us,” she whispered.

I didn’t look. “The cute blonde guy?”

Yes.” Monica got excited. “In the sunlight he’s even more incredible to look at. I wonder where he’s going.”

I quickly checked our surroundings, and then glanced across the street. The glow around street vendor’s head gave him away on the sidewalk that paralleled ours. Now he was dressed as a geek with thick glasses and buzz-short hair.

Monica peered behind again to gawk at blonde guy. She would have run into a fire hydrant, but I yanked her away in time. Her interest got Vadin staring behind as well.

“What is it?” he said. “Someone famous?”

“Just a cute guy,” Monica said.

“Ah.” Vadin shrugged, bored.

Our behavior got Jake off his cell phone, and he stared behind as well. “So, women can be shallow too,” he said. No sign of concern or fear on his part.

The homeless woman was ahead, limping along under the shadow of a building, hauling an army knapsack on her shoulder. She was using the reflections of the glass windows to look back at us.

Stuart and Tim were deep in conversation, completely oblivious to what was going on around them. Talking code from the way their hands moved to point out invisible flow charts.

I wondered what would happen when Eli came into view. Would these Magi call the tail off?

Monica said to me, “Maybe he’s taken with you, Dorelai.” She assumed no one would be interested in her since she always wore her sapphire engagement ring.

He’s into Jake, I thought, but kept my mouth shut. But I did say, “Don’t assume he’s straight.”

“You’re right.” Monica took another glance back, and this time I joined her in looking. It had to be obvious that we were talking about him.

He grinned, and gave us a tiny wave.

The guy looked like a model in an advertisement for men’s business suits. Not one wrinkle in his grey suit, despite the muggy heat of an August afternoon.

His face was flawless, and his glow made his hair seem like molten gold in the sunlight. An excellent decoy. No one was paying any attention to the others who were tracking us.

Monica and I had to turn our heads around to look ahead to make sure we didn’t bump into anyone. At the next stoplight, I saw a man up ahead in the ugliest Hawaiian shirt I’d ever seen—bright pink flamingos on a purple background.

If it hadn’t been for the shirt, I wouldn’t have recognized Rabbi Eli. His hair and beard had been trimmed and dyed light brown, and he wore contacts instead of his glasses. And khaki shorts with sneakers. His skin must have been rubbed down with instant tan, because his arms and legs weren’t a scholarly pale white. And most shocking of all, he wore no hat, not even a kippah. He looked like a professor on a Florida vacation who’d taken a wrong turn to end up in Mather.

I glanced back at glowing blonde guy. He was staring at Eli with an expression that I could only describe as pure loathing.

The homeless woman ducked down an alley before Eli could pass her. And the street vendor had disappeared from view.

My footsteps sped up as we crossed the street, and when Eli lifted his head I waved to him. “Samuel!” I called out and jogged toward him.

Eli smiled and waved back.

When I reached him, I threw my arms about him in a quick hug, appreciating his strong scent of tanning lotion, then stepped back. “You look great. But what are you doing in Mather?”

“I never expected to run into you here.” Eli’s eyes flicked in the direction of blonde guy, then back to me. He was trying to warn me.

“Mather is my home now,” I said, and nodded to indicate I’d gotten his warning. “I work for Granite Hills Software.”

He turned around so that we walked next to each other in step. Comfortable as an old college friend, he asked, “And how is your mother?”

“She’s doing very well, though not happy about me living in Mather instead of New York.”

“It’s never easy to let children go,” Eli said.

I wondered about Eli’s family. Had they cast him out for the nightmare poisoning? And—

Monica poked me in the back, and I jumped. “Please excuse me for being rude,” I said. “Samuel, I should introduce you to my coworkers.” I introduced Eli to Vadin and Monica. We stopped walking so everyone could shake hands, and that caught the attention of Jake, Tim, and Stuart as they approached.

Jake showed no sign of recognition when introduced to Eli.

I invited Eli to our dinner, which was eagerly seconded by Monica and Vadin.

As we walked the rest of the way to The Silver Diner, Vadin said to Eli, “Would you mind if I sketched your shirt?”

“Go ahead,” Eli said.

Vadin got wrapped up in drawing Eli as he walked, while Monica peppered Eli with questions about what he did for a living and where he lived.

I noted that homeless woman and street vendor guy were lying low, but blonde guy still tracked us. I caught him staring with an indecent intensity at Eli—the way one would stare at an enemy when one couldn’t act because there were too many witnesses.

The guy became aware I was watching him, and gave me another smile and a wink.

I waggled my fingers while making a smirk. Let him think I was taken with him, and that that was why I kept staring.

Eli, I noted, was bemused by what was going on between me and blonde guy. He said to me, “Do you know him?”

“No,” I said. “We just ran into him in our office building, and he happens to be going in our direction. Monica’s been admiring his stunning profile for blocks now.”

Monica looked back. “Not just me. So were you.”

“What I want to know,” I said, “is why this guy isn’t in Los Angeles where he belongs. With a face like that, he could be starring in films. Or the perfect front man for a con game to steal millions.”

“Indeed,” Eli said.

Vents blowing out the scent of gravy and chicken fried steak clued us in that we’d arrived at the diner. Stuart held open the door for all of us, and we passed into A/C chilled air that smelled like fried heaven.

Veronica was already at the horseshoe-shaped booth reserved for us. She wore a tube dress, and was clearly uncomfortable with the laid-back ambiance of the diner. Her red nails were tapping the Formica tabletop in a constant tattoo of annoyance.

Tim sucked in a deep breath through his nose, and exhaled smiling. “At least for once I can eat without guilt. I need to gain a little weight.” He grinned at us as he patted his stomach. “You can watch me in envy.” He sat down to scoot to the center of the booth next to Veronica, tucking his napkin in.

Jake sat on the other side of Veronica, with Monica and Vadin on his side. On Tim’s side, Stuart slid toward him across the slick plastic padding, followed by me, then Eli on the end.

Maybe it was just me, but Veronica seemed to be watching me closely.

Vadin was deep into another sketch, this one of the diner itself. The rest of us looked at our menus. Peering over my menu, I noticed that in a far corner street vendor guy was sitting at a table with an Afro-American man dressed like an accountant. Both of them had the Magi golden glow.

Blonde guy came in, and exchanged loud and joyful greetings with a lovely blonde woman waiting for him in a narrow booth for two. The blonde woman also had the Magi glow around her. Two blonde Magi to draw all the attention to themselves.

Veronica gripped her menu too tight. She hunched down behind it, mouth thinned, trying to watch blonde guy without seeming to do so.

Jake picked up on her alarm, and stared at the blonde guy.

Veronica said, low, “Don’t stare like that. It’s rude.” She was upset.

There followed an awkward five minutes where Jake kept trying to find out what was wrong, but Veronica couldn’t tell him because we all were there.

Stuart asked Vadin, “Can I look at what you’re doing?” as Vadin kept doing sketch after sketch.

Vadin said, “Sure.”

We all (except for Jake and Veronica, who continued their round robin of trying to communicate without talking) leaned over.

It was amazing. Vadin had captured the seeming joy of blonde guy meeting his girlfriend, the way they were both so handsome and graceful.

Veronica whispered in Jake’s ear. He started, then paled, and his eyes involuntarily went to look in the direction of blonde guy—

—who had noticed Jake’s look, and held up his water glass in salute.

His gesture made Jake and Veronica squirm.

Eli was watching all of this, too. He whispered, “I have not yet been introduced.”

“Oh, Veronica,” I said, “I completely forgot. This is a friend of mine, Samuel Parisi.”

She gave Eli a smile that was all gums and no friendliness. “I’m Veronica Wilcox.”

Our Magi watchers—both sets—were avidly watching the interaction between Eli and Veronica.

The waitress came to take our orders. We insisted that Tim order first, and he insisted on buying us all the first round of coffee.

When it was Eli’s turn to order, not just I, but Monica as well noticed what Eli got—a vegetarian platter.

Monica said to Eli, “Are you vegetarian?”

“Yes.” Eli looked down to straighten his knife and fork. “I try to eat healthy, that’s all.”

I ordered a blackened chicken sandwich with a side order of mashed potatoes drowned in turkey gravy.

Monica got excited. “You’re actually going to try their mashed potatoes?”

“I already told you,” I said, “I’m finished with just eating salads. I’m going to diversify.”

“You know what we should do,” Stuart said, amused, “go on a fried food crawl through the best places downtown. Fried mushrooms, French fries, fried seafood platters…”

“I don’t need to gain that much weight,” I said.

I could feel Eli tense beside me, though his expression and body language didn’t change.

Veronica eyed me quite intently. She wriggled, thinking about something, then said, “So I heard you all have been having trouble with bad dreams and stress.”

Monica and Tim shuddered. I faked one.

Tim said, a hollowness around his eyes, “It’s been … difficult these last few months. Too much stress from too much work with too few people to do it.” He added, “They need to replace me and Monica as fast as they can.”

“I’m sure Dorelai can handle it,” Veronica said. She’d mispronounced my name like Jake did.

Typically I’d correct someone, but this time I just didn’t care.

Jake filled the silence with, “Dorelai had quite the, er, interesting dream.” He described my imaginary dream to Veronica.

Monica’s eyes got wide. “I’m so sorry to hear that, Dorelai, I know how bad stress dreams can be.”

“I’ve been lucky,” I said. “My dreams haven’t been nearly as bad as yours and Tim’s. You’d almost think we had bad dream germs running around the office that—”

Crash. Veronica had accidentally knocked over her glass of water, spilling ice and chilled water across the table. “Oh, I’m so clumsy,” she said as she wiped at it with a napkin. We all dove in with our own napkins, and between them all, and several more yanked out of the napkin dispenser, we got it cleaned up.

The waitress came over, and gave Veronica a fresh glass. The old glass, luckily, had not chipped. Jake had gotten a lapful of water, though, and had to go to the men’s room to dry off.

Blonde guy got up just a couple of seconds after Jake passed, and headed toward the restrooms.

Veronica began to breathe too fast. “Excuse me,” she said to Monica, “I need to get past you to go and dry myself off as well.” She nearly shoved Monica into Vadin in her urgency to get out of the booth to move toward the restrooms at a fast trot (which was impressive considering the high heels she was wearing).

Eli laid a restraining hand on my knee for a few seconds to signal we should not follow.

As Vadin settled back into the booth, Stuart said to him, “I think you need to put a portfolio together and get out of Mather. You’re wasted here.”

Both Eli and I watched the back of the diner where a hall door led to the restrooms, but there were no flashes of magical light or loud voices. Whatever was going on out of sight, it was quiet.

Vadin paused in finishing his sketch of the water spill. “You really think so?”

“This town is dead for what you want to do,” Stuart said. “Seriously, you need to go somewhere that has enough advertising and animation studios for you to get your foot in the door.”

Tim said, “They’re coming back.”

If Jake found out we were talking Vadin into quitting Granite Hills, he’d tell Ed.

Veronica was right behind Jake. They both looked spooked.

Eli whispered in my ear, “She got him away from Peter before the questioning could start from the looks of it.”

Monica and Vadin struggled back out of the booth so that Veronica and Jake could slide back in.

Peter (aka glowing blonde guy) came back into sight, and mock-shook a finger at Eli and me for watching him.

“Arrogant ass,” I muttered.

Eli whispered, “His girlfriend is Beth.”

Both Jake and Veronica picked up their water glasses with quivery fingers, and gulped the water down too fast.

Our dinner platters arrived, and we turned to eating our meals instead of making conversation. But Jake and Veronica kept whispering in each other’s ears. I found it hard to enjoy the roasted turkey flavor of the homemade gravy, my mind was so focused on watching them.

Veronica pulled out her cell phone, and I almost forgot not to stare. Her phone had an aura of burgundy. She angled it so that neither Tim nor Jake could see the screen, typed a message into it, hit SEND, and then her shoulders slipped downward slightly in relief.

She’d sent off a message for help to someone.

I finished chewing my mouthful of mashed potatoes and gravy, then said, “I almost think there’s something in the water at work, we’ve been having so many bad dreams lately.”

“But then why haven’t the rest of the programmers been plagued with them,” Monica said. She wolfed down a couple of French fries. “Only our team has had this problem.”

Veronica shoved her plate of food away, her eyes flicking toward where Peter and Beth sat. Jake began stirring the pasta on his plate instead of eating it.

“Well,” I said, “maybe it’s something about the area where our cubicles are set up. We do sit under that main vent. Perhaps we’re getting dosed with pollutants from another part of the building.”

“It was caused by Ed and Stephanie rationing the coffee,” Stuart said. “Withdrawal symptoms messed with our minds.”

Eli looked confused. I said to him, “We got busted for excessive coffee guzzling during our all-nighters in May. Stephanie noticed how fast the coffee packets in the break room closet were disappearing, and finally put two and two together. Before that, we’d been able to frame all the programmers for our heavy usage.”

“Yeah, I remember those times.” Jake actually looked nostalgic. He held up two fingers. “We’d pour two packets of coffee into the coffee filter instead of one to make a pot, and get all three pots brewing fresh coffee all night long. I kinda wish Stephanie hadn’t ratted on us.”

Stuart said, “Even if Stephanie hadn’t done the packet count, we would’ve gotten busted since we all stank to high heaven of coffee in the morning. It was oozing out of our pores like a cologne made from the scrapings of a coffee urn.”

Eli seized his napkin to cover his mouth, and choked a laugh into it.

Veronica wrinkled her nose at Jake. “So that’s why you stank of old coffee on those dates.”

When Eli had recovered his breath, I told him, “When Ed found out we could drink programming teams three times our size under the table, he ordered us to cut back our coffee consumption rate or we’d find ourselves drinking only decaf.”

Stuart visibly shuddered at the mention of decaf. “It’s the forced caffeine withdrawal that did us in.”

“No,” Tim said, “I think it was the stress of being on an understaffed project.”

The argument went round and round, with other off-the-wall theories thrown in by Vadin, Monica, and me. Jake didn’t participate.

Eli and Veronica listened, not saying a word.

After a while I could tell Jake and Veronica wanted us to shut up about this dreams topic, but whenever there was a sign it might wind down, I spun it up again with a well-placed comment.

But I stayed away from talking about Jake making the coffee.

In the end, Veronica dragged us off the topic of dreams by digging her sealed party invitations out of her purse to hand round to each of us as she said, “I’m inviting you all to an impromptu birthday party for my brother, Charles.”

Everyone except Eli got one. We all just sat there staring at our envelopes.

Veronica could sense our confusion at being invited to a party for a stranger. “My brother has heard about all of you through Jake’s tales about his job.” She gave us a tremulous smile and blinked too fast, as if she would burst into tears if we refused to come. “He’s been wanting to meet Jake’s friends.”

We weren’t Jake’s friends, we were his coworkers, but it was clear no one was going to argue with Veronica about it. Out of politeness and pity my coworkers would accept this invitation.

As Tim used his thumb to tear the invitation envelope open, he said to her, “Would it be all right if we bought a joint gift for Charles?”

The outside of my envelope had my name written in calligraphy, and I tilted it so that Eli could get a good look at it. Then I picked up my butter knife to slit it open.

Veronica said, “I’m sure Charles wouldn’t mind if you pooled together for a gift.”

Jake perked up at this. If he combined his money with ours, there was a chance of getting something semi-decent without going broke.

As the others pulled their invitations out of the envelopes, I watched everyone for traces of magic. But no glows or specks appeared. Then I tugged my invite out of my envelope, and was relieved to find there were no hidden specks lying in wait for me. I hadn’t relished trying to fake an accident to get away from an attempted magical dose.

Veronica leaned forward, giving the guys full view of her cleavage, while saying, “I hope you all can come.”

Her party for Charles would be next Tuesday, at seven o’clock in the evening, in the most exclusive neighborhood of Mather. During the 1920s Mather had briefly been the city of choice for wealthy merchants who wanted to get out of Boston, but couldn’t afford a Rockefeller-level lifestyle.

I decided to accept despite the potential complications involved (like being offered a speck-laden drink), and added my voice to the chorus of yeses from the others. The opportunity to look deeper into Veronica’s or Charles’ involvement with nightmare dust was too valuable to ignore.

Checking on Eli from the corner of my eye, I saw that he approved.

That’s when inspiration hit me, and I asked her, “Can we bring a date?”

All eyes swung their gaze between Eli and me, speculating.

Veronica smirked as she looked us two over, and I could feel my cheeks getting red. “Of course,” she said. “Just RSVP me by Monday.”

“Thanks,” I said, and tucked the invite into my purse.

A cab pulled up to the curb outside, and honked three times.

“That’s our ride,” Veronica said. “Sorry to leave early, but I’ve got shopping to do to get ready for Charles’ birthday. I’m sure you all understand. See you next Tuesday.” She and Jake tossed down cash to pay for their half-eaten dinners, then stood up to get out of the booth. I noticed that Peter and Beth stayed at their booth pretending to be wrapped up in each other. But street vendor guy and the accountant had already paid their check and exited to the street.

The two Magi stopped on the sidewalk outside the diner to light cigarettes, giving them time to memorize the license plate number and markings of the cab. Then they walked off out of sight.

As soon as the diner’s exit closed behind Jake and Veronica, Stuart said, “I can’t believe I said yes to such an awful party. You know that woman is going to freeze up as soon as I bring Theo to the door.”

Theo was Stuart’s husband.

“Don’t worry,” Monica said, “surely Jake let her know about that.”

Stuart looked at Monica mournfully. “I wouldn’t bet on it. I get the feeling there’s a lot that Jake doesn’t tell her so that he’ll make the grade.”

Tim signaled the waitress to come over. “Can we have pot of coffee to share, please?”

Eli flipped his coffee cup upside down, indicating he didn’t want any more.

The rest of us hunched over our steaming coffee cups to talk about the party.

“I say we all chip in a ten,” Monica said. “Then we take the money and go to Louie’s Emporium for the gift.”

“Sounds good,” Tim said, pouring two spoonfuls of milk into his coffee, then stirring vigorously.

I preferred my coffee black with one sugar. Monica made a face as I took the first sip. She would often mix a packet of hot cocoa into her mug of coffee at work, swearing it was almost as good as chocolate. Here, she just poured in five packets of sugar, and cream.

Vadin said, “Even Louie’s Emporium isn’t going to have something Charles would like.”

“Too bad,” Stuart said, “it’s not our problem that Charles is such an art snob. It would serve him right if we bought a poster instead.”

I thought about the display cases at Louie’s. Surely there had to be something there that would almost meet Charles’ high standards. Plus, I had a hunch Louie would love to have the opportunity (if needed) to pass along something “special” to Veronica’s brother.

“Louie has a lot of unique pieces from the Navajo Nation and Pueblo Indians,” I said. “And I’m sure he’d dig up something special for us. Which reminds me!” I handed over my gift box to Tim. “This is from us to chase away bad dreams.”

Tim unwrapped the gift, and smiled at the dreamcatcher in the box. “Betsy will be thrilled when she sees it.” He lifted the dreamcatcher out and held it up for us all to admire, and as he did so he studied the feathers and stones closely. “These remind me of where I grew up—I’d dig pieces of quartz out of the ground, and I’m sure these are dove feathers.”

He gingerly placed the dreamcatcher back in the box. Then he said to Stuart, “If you think it’s going to be too unpleasant, just tell Veronica you have a prior commitment you forgot about.”

Peter and Beth had paid their check, and were headed for us. When close enough, Peter said to Eli, “Samuel Parisi, how are you?”

Eli hands turned into fists in his lap. “Fine.”

Peter placed both palms on our table and leaned forward. I mused over the fact his hands did not set the table on fire despite their golden glow. Beth watched from behind him, silent, staring at each of our faces in turn. Observing how we reacted to Peter’s words.

Peter said, “Be so kind, Samuel, as to introduce us to your friends.”

************** End of Chapter 5 *****************

Chapter 6 will go up next Tuesday. (Note: If you are reading this post after May 14, 2013, click here to go to Cubicle‘s main page on this website so you can find Chapter 6.)

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Cheers, L. M.