Welcome to the first installment of Skeleton Key, a Round Robin Blogvel–a traveling blog novel. A list of participating blogs can be found here. And now I give you:
I swallow the bite of sandwich I’ve been chewing and look over at my lunch buddy. Normally I would think Genevieve is too pretty to talk to, but on my first day here she gave me a chocolate cupcake with pink frosting. What can I say? My friendship can be bought. Cheap.
I lean over, nudging her with my elbow before whispering “Do you ever think Laurel might be a vampire?”
Genevieve’s bright green eyes skate over Laurel’s back. As usual, the dark haired, wraith-thin head of human resources is hunched over a cup of coffee.
Genevieve rolls her eyes at me. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she says.
I take another bite and go through my mental checklist again. Laurel never goes outside. Her office is in the basement–no windows. She never eats. She’s pale as copy paper. She’s obscenely beautiful. And she never smiles.
Of course that list could probably be applied to most fashion models, too, so maybe I’m full of shit.
But there’s something weird about Laurel. And I don’t think it’s that she’s secretly a model. I’ve been here three weeks, and I’ve never seen her go to the bathroom. Of course, that could be because I don’t spend much time in the building. I’m a runner–which is a more flattering term than “gopher”, but it amounts to the same thing. Go for coffee, go for lunches, go for pens and paperclips.
Laurel’s not the only odd thing about my new workplace.
For one thing, no one but me ever seems to leave the building–not even for lunch.
For another, I’ve never seen my boss. He talks to me via intercom, and I sometimes see his shape moving around behind the frosted glass of his office door, but I’ve seriously never seen him in the flesh.
He has a great voice though. His voice has featured in some night-time imaginings, let me tell you. I’m pretty sure this is wrong. I don’t let that stop me.
Weirdness aside, the job is more interesting than serving coffee, and it pays better. My options as a former English major with student loans are limited; I’ll take a little eccentricity if it comes with good benefits.
When I get back to my desk after lunch, my intercom beeps. It’s my boss.
“Rebecca,” he says. “I’d like to have a word. Could you step into my office?”
I stare at the intercom. A car alarm goes off outside. A bird soliloquizes in a tree near the window.
“Sorry. Yeah, I’ll be right there.”
I pause outside the frosted glass office door and look myself over. My dress code is casual, but I’m relieved to see I didn’t absentmindedly wipe mayonnaise on my jeans or spill coffee on my sweater. I clear my throat, smooth my hair, and knock.
Mr. Harvey’s office is not what I expected. It’s neither sleek and modern nor classic masculine craftsman; instead, it’s crammed full of exotic looking plants. Vines climb the curtains and drape over the curtain rod so the light coming through the window casts a greenish glow over everything. He stands with his back to me, staring out the window. He’s tall. His suit fits him perfectly. His black hair is cut very short, and seems to absorb light; looking at him is like looking into an unlit alley, all shadows and secrets.
“You wanted to see me?”
He doesn’t turn.
“You’ve been here three weeks now. How do you like it so far?”
Is this a trick question?
“I can’t complain,” I say finally.
He nods. “Everyone says you’re doing a great job.”
Doing a great job isn’t all that impressive; it’s not like the tasks they give me are difficult. But I’m not about to say as much to the guy who signs my paycheck. I settle for thanking him.
“Genevieve mentioned to me that you’ve been asking some questions about the staff.”
Crap. I never would have pegged Genevieve as the type to run to the boss. Especially about a flippant comment. I don’t know how to respond.
“It’s no more than I expected,” he says. “Though it’s ridiculous to accuse Laurel of being a vampire.”
“I was joking,” I say. Sort of.
He chuckles. He doesn’t sound angry.
Then he turns around.
I don’t mean he’s a man of African American descent. I mean he is BLACK. Crow-wing, midnight in central Oklahoma, pint-of-Guiness black. Except his eyes are bright yellow, and slit like a cat’s.
I’ve never been a fainter, so I settle for stumbling back a few steps. A chair bumps my knees and I fall in to it.
He smiles. His teeth are toothpaste-commercial white–and a little pointy.
“Laurel’s not a vampire,” he says. “She’s a succubus. Contrary to popular misconception, the two species are not at all alike.”
I really, really want to faint. Why can’t I faint? If this were a novel, I would totally faint. Damn sturdy constitution.
I have a strong stomach, too, so bolting for the bathroom and enjoying a vigorous vomiting session is also out.
I could walk out I suppose. But my traitorous legs are the only part of me sticking to the cliche response. They’re shaking, all right, and I’m pretty sure I’d end up eating carpet if I tried to walk. Yuck.
“So . . . um . . .” I finally manage to say.
Mr. Harvey walks around his desk very slowly and eases in to his chair. He’s watching me the way I would watch a mouse I want to catch; like he knows if he makes a wrong move I’ll run.
“Will you feel better if I promise none of us intend to hurt you?”
Probably not, I think. But what I say is, “By ‘us’, you mean?”
He smiles again. I wish he wouldn’t do that. It’s really not helping, what with the pointy teeth and all.
“Oh, everyone,” he says.
“Are you all succubuses? Succubi? Whatever?”
He shakes his head. “We’re a very diverse cross-section of the supernatural population.”
“O . . . kay . . .”
I’m a font of witty repartee today.
“We hired you,” he said, “because we need your help.”
Oh hell no. I’ve read this ballad. It never ends well for the human. As soon as my legs start working, I’m gonna get far away before I end up some kind of blood sacrifice to restore the fertility of the earth or something.
But until then, I need to keep it together.
“What for?” I ask.
“It’s going to be a little hard for you to accept,” he says. “Judging by your response to what I’ve told you thus far. But hear me out, and I’ll give you a bonus. And if you decide you’re willing to stay, and help us, I’ll give you a raise. A good one.”
I knew I shouldn’t have worn my I’m a liberal arts major: would you like fries with that? t-shirt on casual Friday. Now they all know how much I need money–and how few options I have for getting it. Damn my overpriced education to the seventh circle of hell. I cross my arms.
He leans forward a little and steeples his hands. The human CEO gesture doesn’t suit him; I think he realizes it, too, because he immediately gives it up and leans his chair back.
“This building is a sort of transit center for the supernatural,” he says. “If you’ve read any folklore–and I know you have–then you’re familiar with the idea of multiple worlds, and the passages between them. Our building has a lot of those passages. Are you with me so far?”
I close my eyes and lean my head back. I wish I could go back to the beginning of the day and stay in bed like I wanted to. I could be at home reading a mystery novel and drinking tea right now.
“I’m with you,” I say.
“These transit centers are scattered all over the world. Each center is staffed by beings who watch the entrances and exits, and make sure any creature entering the human world knows how to keep a low profile, how to blend in. And who make sure nothing too destructive gets loose.”
He pauses again. I guess I’m expected to respond. I nod.
“And each transit center is under the control of its creator, or doorkeeper. Only the doorkeeper has the ability to lock and unlock the doors from one world to another.”
Doorkeeper. That’s creative.
“But our doorkeeper was murdered.”
“Wait–I thought you guys lived forever or whatever.”
“Anything can be killed if you know how,” he says.
I don’t like the sound of that. I tuck my knees up to my chest and wrap my arms around my legs. They aren’t shaking anymore. They’ve gone limp and lifeless instead.
“Moving on,” he says briskly. “Since our doorkeeper was killed, we’ve all been trapped here.”
My muscles all loosen with relief. He’s totally lying. I come and go as I please. This is all a joke. I say as much, and he rubs his eyes.
“The magic doesn’t work on humans. Not full-blooded humans, anyway.”
I can feel my eyebrows rubbing against my hairline.
“That’s convenient,” I say.
“I would explain it all to you, Rebecca, but it would take years of learning before you’d understand it. And since some of us are starving in here, we don’t have time to send you to remedial supernatural education.”
“Okay so . . . how exactly am I supposed to help you? Not being all magical or whatever.”
“The one who murdered the doorkeeper made a key from her finger bones. It can open and close the portals. He took it into the human world and disappeared–and we want you to find him.”
I start laughing. I can’t help it. And I can’t stop. I’m like some crazy hysterical volcano erupting with giggles. My eyes water.
Mr. Harvey sits quietly while I get control of myself. He’s way too dignified. I wonder what he is. I decide I don’t want to know. I hold my breath, and stop laughing.
“So let me get this straight,” I say, wiping my eyes. Another bubble of laugher slips out, but I swallow hard and suppress it. “You need me to go find . . . a skeleton key.”
He actually laughs. His tongue is very pale pink.
“Yes, I suppose you could put it that way.”
I turn another hiccup of laughter into a throat-clearing, and put my feet back on the floor.
“And you think I’m the one to help you with this . . . why?”
“Oh,” he says casually, straightening a stack of papers on his desk. “We knew you were the one for the job the minute you came for your interview. You see, Genevieve saw you in a vision.”
copyright Michelle Simkins, 2011.
Chapter Two will post Monday, June 6, at Inner Owlet.