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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. (PG-13 rating, folks.)

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

 Lynn Kilmore

Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore

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.

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.

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

Lynn Kilmore

Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore

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.

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. 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

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.

Cheers, L. M.

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

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

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

 Lynn Kilmore

Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore

Published by Osuna Publishing

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

Chapter 4:

AOX Investigations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey!” I said. “I’m not filthy!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go along, for now. “Fine.”

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

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

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

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

“Three-seventeen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s fine,” Louie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” I said to Xu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eli made a faint moan of protest.

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

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

Louie made an impatient gesture for us to get going.

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

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

 *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Zaliel?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pointed to the shiny green paper.

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

“There’s no charge,” Ines said.

“But—”

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

I hesitated in taking the shiny box from her.

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

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

Then she winked at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I made my farewell to Ines and left the emporium.

*

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

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

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

The collars were like the magical equivalent of pet collars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Engineers make terrible salespeople,” Ed said.

Amen, I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louie said something that cut him off.

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

Patel said, “But sir—”

Louie cut Patel off again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Chapter 5 will go up next Tuesday. Until next time, L. M.

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

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

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

Take care of yourselves this week. Stay safe.

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

 Lynn Kilmore

Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore

Published by Osuna Publishing

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

Chapter 3:

Magic and Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right here,” Louie called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We reached the private elevator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, Rabbi Eli, it cannot,” he said.

That made Eli go pale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doorplate read, Xu Laboratories.

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

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

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

I heard running water hit the bottom of a sink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My body flinched at the description of Knossos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The coldness was up to my shoulder.

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

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

Now,” Xu said.

Louie took his hand away.

The room blurred before my eyes.

“Here it comes,” Xu said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did Xu build it?” I blurted out.

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

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

“Keep your eyes open,” Xu said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sputtered. “But—”

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

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

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

“All in good time,” Louie said.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I see it.”

“See what?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said, “If it’s too painful—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But surely the police—”

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

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

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

Brah, stop it!”

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. “And the cocaine charges?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for Chapter 4 next Tuesday.

All the best, L. M.