The short story collection Tales from the Threshold is being released this week in e-bookstores. It will be popping up in the next 24 hours for sale in e-book form at places such as Kobo, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.
To celebrate, for one week only the short story A Maze of Cubicles will be available to read in its entirety here. Then next Monday half of it gets deleted so that it’s an excerpt instead.
This short story is PG-13.
(Dec. 2, 2013: This short story has now been changed to an excerpt.)
A Maze of Cubicles: A Dorelai Short Story
L. M. May
Copyright © 2013 by L. M. May
Published by Osuna Publishing
This story is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogue, and locales are either drawn from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, and locales is entirely coincidental.
February, Year 2
There were days I felt ambivalent about my job at AOX Investigations. Especially on an icy grey Saturday afternoon, sitting at my workbench in the AOX computer lab in the subbasement of Knossos Tower, dealing with a filthy old computer desktop that reeked of cat pee.
O’Keefe (one of the founders of AOX, and a strange magical mishmash of human and cockroach) had carried the desktop into the computer lab with his four hands, and dumped it on my workbench with a curt, “Recover the deleted files, Trelton. Evidence.” He’d given the desktop an annoyed smack that made it shed cat hair.
As he’d strode off, he’d grumbled under his breath, “I may be a roach, but I gotta wash up after searching that crummy shack o’ cats.”
I eyed the computer. There were no magical glows from any part of it. It was just a regular desktop … except for stinking like a litter box.
So I took out the frame screws, trying not to touch the gunked-up bottom of the computer where the ammonia stink was strongest, and when I finally shoved the frame off, clouds of dust fuzz, cat fur, and dried catnip spilled all over my workbench and clothes.
AOX had a strict dress code for those on duty. Business formal.
Swearing, I brushed the catnip off my grey wool slacks, but I definitely now smelled like an ancient catnip mouse.
So when O’Keefe popped his head back through the lab doorway, he curled his two antennae into question marks at the sight of me frantically brushing myself off. “Aw, shit, don’t tell me there’s fleas.”
“No,” I said. “Not fleas. Just catnip, dust, and God knows what else sucked in by the computer’s cooling fans. It’s a miracle this machine even worked. Just how many cats did the owner live with anyway?”
“Ya don’t want to know. It’s—”
Ump-pa. Ump-pa. Ump-pa. O’Keefe’s cell phone. Last week he’d changed its tune to blare out the Cuckoo Waltz, because it irritated the hell out of all of us.
O’Keefe said into the mouthpiece, “AOX Investigations. O’Keefe speaking.” A pause. “Uh-huh. Yeah, Trelton’s here at AOX today.” He held his cell phone out. “Call for ya. An old friend, Stuart.”
I took the cell phone (with its silver-blue magical aura) from O’Keefe, and felt annoyed—as I always did—about how the magically shielded cell phones used by AOX wouldn’t work for me. My resistance to magic had reached the point that magical items acted as if they were broke when I tried to be ID’ed by them for access. I had to use a typical cell phone to make calls, and the only phones that worked down here in the subbasement were the magically shielded ones.
No telephone, cable, or internet lines ran to the subbasement, so those options were also not available to me. Security was kept tight in Knossos Tower. On the outside it looked like your ordinary office building, but in reality it crawled with magical shielding and various other forms of protection (magical and otherwise).
“Hey, Stuart,” I said. “How are you? How’s the job at Idealcode going?”
“Dorelai,” he said, “I need your help.” Utter panic in Stuart’s voice. “I can’t find my boss.” His voice rose. “I’ve looked everywhere Tabitha might be in the cubicles, but she’s nowhere to be seen.” Gusts of wind made static-like background noise on his phone. “I’m calling from the parking lot. Her car is still here, but I can’t find her anywhere. I’m really, really worried.”
This was bad. Stuart was not the sort of person to panic without reason. I’d become friends with him back when we both worked as programmers for Granite Hills here in Mather. After I’d been laid off last August, we’d stayed in touch, though only by email. Circumstances had made it necessary for me to drift away from seeing old friends and coworkers for their own safety. I’d told Stuart that I’d taken at job at AOX Investigations that required very long hours. He had no idea that AOX dealt with magical issues … actually, most typical people had no idea that magic even existed.
I asked, “When did you last see Tabitha?”
“About thirty minutes ago.” Stuart’s teeth chattered. “W-we’re the only two left. Everyone else went home for the day at lunchtime. I won’t leave until I know she’s okay.”
O’Keefe hovered nearby, listening in on my part of the conversation. “Stuart,” I said, “does anything seem different … or a little weird?”
“N—maybe … yes. There’s been these odd rustlings and scratching sounds in the cubicles. Probably mice.”
My stomach tightened into knots. “Stay out of the cubicles.”
“Why?” Stuart said. “Mice don’t scare m—you think someone is in there?”
“I don’t know.”
“It didn’t sound like someone sneaking around, Dorelai. It sounded like mice eating a pile of printer paper.”
“Just trust me on this,” I said. “Keep out of that area until I can join you. Where’s this place located?”
“Near the interstate exit, in the Mather industrial park.”
My mind began to race, thinking of what I would need to bring.
“Watch out for the ice patches,” Stuart added. “The industrial park’s road is slick.”
“Then I’ll drive slow. I’ll call you as soon as I’m within five minutes of pulling into Idealcode’s parking lot. We’ll meet at Tabitha’s car.” I handed the phone back to O’Keefe, who quizzed Stuart on the situation, then ended the call.
“Whaddya think it is, Trelton?”
“Yup, that’s my hunch as well. Tabitha’s huddled up somewhere in that building, under the thrall of whatever thingamajig carries the curse, or I’m a goldfish.”
I smiled, despite my worry, at the thought of O’Keefe being half-human, half-goldfish. “Well,” I said, “I’d better go and get ready.”
“Ahem.” O’Keefe shook his head. “Go armed. Holster.”
“That’s an order, Trelton.”
O’Keefe knew I’d lost my taste for guns and gunplay, and he’d guessed—correctly—that I would’ve conveniently “forgotten” to take my semiautomatic pistol if he hadn’t told me to do so.
I didn’t like to carry a loaded gun snuggled up against my side if I could help it. I grumbled under my breath as I dug the unloaded gun and its magazine out of my workbench’s drawer. I removed my shoulder holster from where it hung on a wall hook, put it on, double-checked that the gun was unloaded, and put the gun in the holster. The gun’s magazine I stuffed into the holster’s magazine pouch. Lastly, I yanked on my grey wool business jacket to hide the holster and weapon from view. “Better?” I said.
O’Keefe gave an approving grunt.
“I’ll get the usual supplies,” I said. “Do you want me to call this in once I get there?”
O’Keefe had to think about it. If I used the speakerphone on my cell phone, he’d be able to listen in to what was going on at Idealcode. The problem was that the lack of magical shielding meant my cell phone was open to magical attempts to tap into the signal. However, while my phone had no magical protections, it did have the best cryptohacks possible to keep my connection to Knossos private and secure. So even if someone succeeded in tapping the phone call, they were unlikely to be able to crack the scrambling being done that made it impossible to understand what was being said.
But the scrambling wasn’t a 100% guarantee of a secure connection. Magic was all about cheating.
“Yeah, phone it in,” O’Keefe said. “This ain’t no undercover gig.”
Stuart was right. The road through the Mather industrial park was slick. My car nearly skidded twice into the drainage ditch that ran parallel to the icy road.
Winter in Massachusetts was always the season where I wondered why the hell I wasn’t living in California or Arizona instead.
Idealcode was located outside the Mather city limits, in a sprawling industrial park of manufacturing companies, building contractors, and warehouses. There were also a couple of software companies sprinkled into the mix.
As I slowly drove into the ice-coated parking lot past the IDEALCODE logo sign, I noted that Idealcode’s office building was a converted warehouse. Little better than a giant rectangular box to work in, with a faux brick exterior, and no windows except for the front entrance.
Stuart (wearing a ski jacket) stood next to a blue compact car, frantically waving his arms at me as if he stood in a crowd instead of an empty parking lot.
When I pulled in next to the car, I was annoyed to see him goggle at my hearse-like black Cadillac.
I found the old company car assigned to me an embarrassment to drive, but it’d been magically and physically modified by AOX to protect the driver, so I had no good excuse to reject it.
As I got out, I said to Stuart, “Company car. I’ve nicknamed it ‘deathmobile.’”
Stuart’s mouth turned upwards, the skin crinkling near his eyes. He held up his fingers like a director to frame the view of the car and me. “All you need is a black suit. Dorelai Trelton, undertaker by day, detective by night.”
“Har, har. Very funny.” I opened the deathmobile’s trunk, and dug out my toolkit to slip onto my belt. Fiddling around with my belt gave me the cover I wanted to hit the button on my cell phone to dial in to O’Keefe. My mentor would listen in while keeping his own mouthpiece on mute. So far on the jobs that I’d gone solo on, I’d been able to avoid him deactivating his mute feature. The last thing I ever wanted to happen was to have a client hear my mentor’s voice bellowing through my speakerphone that I was screwing up a job big time.
I lifted out my backpack of equipment from the trunk, slipping its reassuring weight across my shoulders, then locked up the deathmobile.
Stuart pointed at the blue car. “This is Tabitha’s.”
“Let’s see what we’ve got.” I went over to the driver’s side, and cupped my hands around my eyes so that I could peer through the tinted glass at the interior.
My hands clenched, a chill that had nothing to do with the cold weather going from my spine to my fingers, at the sight of the empty gift box ripped open on the passenger side. The gift box was just the right size for a cursed music box … but Stuart hadn’t heard any music playing in the cubicles.
“You didn’t see my do this,” I said to Stuart as I selected a slim jim out of the toolkit on my belt.
I proceeded to jimmy the car lock.
Stuart gingerly stepped around so that so that his body blocked the sight of me from the road. He said, jokingly, “I didn’t know you’d once been a thief.”
“Picking comes in handy during an emergency.” It felt odd having O’Keefe’s words come out of my mouth, as if I knew what I was doing. I unlocked the car door, and put the slim jim back with a sigh of relief.
“I’m in,” I said for O’Keefe’s benefit. I knew he had to be grinning right that moment as he listened. I’d done the jimmying faster than ever. His training had really begun to sink in.
After I swung the car door open, I unslung my backpack and got out an evidence bag and tongs. I kneeled on the driver’s seat and its chill seeped through my woolen slacks as I bent toward the gift box with tongs in one hand, evidence bag in the other.
With the tongs I picked up the gift box and studied it closely, making sure not to touch it. There were no magical traces either inside or out. Flicking the evidence bag open, I shoved the box deep inside, then sealed the bag shut.
“Evidence,” I said over my shoulder to Stuart. “I’ll take it back for analysis.”
I put the bag and tongs in my backpack, then popped Tabitha’s trunk. Nothing was in there of interest—except that I could now confirm that Tabitha was compulsively neat. She had a plastic storage container for her folded oil rags and another container that had her car tools neatly stacked within it.
She hadn’t been neat about the present, though. She’d left the torn remains of the box on the passenger seat.
There had been no card, or note, attached to the gift box.
That worried me.
I slammed the trunk shut and locked up her car as quickly as I could. “Did Tabitha say anything about getting a present?”
“No. She was rather quiet today. Withdrawn.” Stuart furrowed his brow, concentrating, then jerked his head up as he snapped his fingers. “Wait! She had a small polished wooden box when she came in—from the color, I’d say cedar.” He frowned. “But I didn’t get a good look at it. She shoved it in a drawer.”
I jerked my thumb at the Idealcode building. “I want you to show me where she sits. I need to take a look at that box.”
The receptionist’s area was plush with thick beige carpeting and comfy-looking beige waiting chairs. The Idealcode logo hung on the beige wall behind the receptionist’s beige desk. Above the logo was the company’s motto … in dark beige plastic letters screwed into the wall: We Code Tomorrow’s Software Today.
“I see they like beige,” I said as I stared at the motto.
Stuart gave a derisive snort. “Silly motto, isn’t it?”
“It’d be more interesting if it read, ‘We Code Today’s Software Tomorrow.’ But then they’d have to change the company’s name to Procrasticode.”
We both snickered.
Stuart led me to the wooden office double doors to the right of the receptionist’s desk, and slid a key card through an electronic lock above the door handles.
He pulled open one of the two doors, and waved his free hand in a doorman’s gesture. “You first.”
I walked through, and when I caught sight of the interior, the first word out of my mouth was “Hell.”
It was the biggest, worst-designed cubicle farm I’d ever seen, and I’d seen plenty in my time as a programmer. But that sight wasn’t what had me upset. It was the view, under the fluorescent lights, of how all the cubicle walls glowed a malevolent burgundy—the sign of blood magic at work.
A faint stink of blood and cedar lingered in the air.
Tabitha was in deep shit.
Stuart couldn’t see the burgundy glow or smell the stink of magic at work, but he could tell that I was upset about something. “Everyone has a cubicle in here,” he said, “even the CEO. We all endure its awfulness together. My first two weeks, if I didn’t pay close attention to where I was going, I always ended up in marketing.”
As a fellow programmer, I understood why Stuart sounded appalled by this. Programmers and marketers were like oil and water—they didn’t mix, and they looked upon each other’s lives as a fate worse than death.
Stuart went to stand next to the nearest cubicle wall. “See how high the walls are? No one can see over them. There are no windows in this place, so we can’t use those as landmarks. Tabitha thinks the company should paint one of the warehouse walls navy, so that we can orientate ourselves that way.”
Getting lost was going to be the least of our problems.
I swallowed a couple of times. While Stuart couldn’t see the magical glow, he would be vulnerable to any magic in here. But I needed to find Tabitha’s cubicle as quickly as possible. “Please take me to Tabitha’s desk.”
Stuart led the way through the second opening before us in the long cubicle wall. “The whole place is cubicles,” he continued, “except for the receptionist’s area, the kitchen, and some enclosed conference rooms. I feel like a rat in a maze some days. But it’s cheap. And pranking the marketing department by moving their walls around keeps us amused.”
“Is there anyone who doesn’t like Tabitha?”
“No, no one. She’s a wonderful manager, everybody loves her.”
“How long has she been in her position?”
“Three years or so.”
It wasn’t sounding as if someone had gotten ambitious for Tabitha’s job. “What about her personal life?”
Stuart raised a finger in an “aha” gesture. “Bernard. Her ex-husband. They tell me it was an ugly divorce. You don’t think he … damn it, he’d bett—”
A shifting, rustling sound came from the cubicle farm.
“Shh,” I whispered. “Did you hear that?”
Stuart held his breath.
This time we both heard the noise. It sounded like papers being ripped up.
I put a hand on Stuart’s arm. “I know this sounds weird, but we’re going to run like hell for Tabitha’s cubicle.”
Stuart squinted at the cubicle walls, then raised an eyebrow at me. “Fine.” He got into a running stance. “Let’s go.” He broke into a run.
I ran after him, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t keep track of all the twists and turns as he led me deep into the cubicle farm. My arms kept squeezing themselves instinctively closer to my sides to keep from touching the magically glowing walls.
Stuart glanced over his shoulder. “Tabitha’s cubicle is only two more turns from here.”
We both froze at the vibrations felt through the office carpet, and a sound like … cubicle walls being moved around.
Stuart audibly swallowed. “There’s someone in here with us. Leave the walls alone! We know you’re in here!”
“Shut up and follow me,” I hissed at him. I seized hold of Stuart’s sweaty hand, and yanked him into the nearest cubicle, jumping up onto the desk, pulling him up with me.
Stuart was spooked enough to follow my lead without arguing.
Standing on the desk, I was able to see over the cubicle walls.
He pointed at what we could both see quite clearly: the cubicle walls had rearranged themselves behind us so that we couldn’t reach the receptionist’s area by the way we had come.
No walls moved as we surveyed the cubicle farm, but I could hear more rustling noises. “Do you hear it?” I whispered.
Stuart looked washed out under the fluorescents. He nodded.
“Help me figure out where the sound is coming from,” I said.
That’s when all the lights went out.
Far away, there was a speck of a glow from an emergency EXIT light, but it wasn’t enough to light up this cavernous space. There were no skylights or windows in this giant box to help see.
I squeezed his hand, hard, to reassure him. I could still see the cubicle walls easily since their magical glow outlined them to my eyes.
Some of the walls were shifting around again to create a new maze for us. …
************** End of excerpt for A Maze of Cubicles *****************
A Maze of Cubicles is part of the short story collection Tales from the Threshold, which goes on sale the week of November 25, 2013 in various e-bookstores such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. The collection includes all eight short stories and novelettes that have so far been published.
You can read more adventures about Dorelai in the novel Cubicles, Blood, and Magic, and in the upcoming sequel Lies, Magic, and Nightmares. Cubicles, Blood, and Magic is available in e-book format at places such as iTunes, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Diesel, Sony, and other e-bookstores.
You can also purchase A Maze of Cubicles by itself in e-book format at places such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Sony, Smashwords, Diesel, Kobo, and other e-bookstores.
Until next time, L.M.