At the distinctive sound of her footfalls, my eyes widened and I searched my cubicle, wishing for an escape route or at least a hiding place. It was about nine o’clock Thursday morning. That inglorious time when lunch is nothing more than a faint hope and quitting time just a fable.
In the ensuing century since completing Wolfe training, I had discovered that my mathematical abilities could add up to surprising success and even respect in the eight-to-five human workplace. So long as I avoid anything high profile—like astronaut—and it didn’t interfere with my duties as Wolfe, the Grey Brethren tolerated my forays in a regular career.
Of course, traditional jobs are not without their own irritants. My most recent degree, a doctorate in Computer Engineering, had earned me an only-slightly-larger-than-tiny cubicle at Koar Industries. I sighed and spun my chair around to face the doorway and one of that special breed of irritant—a coworker.
“Regan. Good morning,” said Eva Osborne as she breezed into my cubicle, her eye shadow reflecting a silvery blue glare. Her hands rose to brush at hair far too red for her olive skin. Plump and gregarious, Eva was an eternal optimist. Despite being the divorced mother of two teenagers from hell and the unfortunate ex-wife of one Carl Osborne, Eva still believed in happy endings. Romantic, schmaltzy, happy endings.
“Oh, would you look at those….” Eva’s voice trailed off, her gaze on the one place on my desk that wasn’t covered in paper.
I glanced at the small swath of cleared desk space. Little origami cranes, fashioned out of paper that read, “While You Were Out,” were lined up in a meandering row.
“It’s my evil army of cranes, ready for world dominion and suchlike.” A row of plastic green army men—a gift from a friend—stood valiantly between the wicked birds and an unprepared world.
Eva gave me a condescending smile. “They’re pink, Regan.”
“Unfortunately, these things don’t come in black.” I flapped the remains of the message pad at her. “Why do we have these, anyway?”
“They’re for people who can’t figure out how to use voice mail,” said a toneless voice from behind Eva.
Eva startled and turned to face the newcomer. Joan Wallace stood in the tiny doorway of my cubicle, faded blue eyes magnified and expressionless behind Coke bottle thick glasses. The left corner of her mouth twitched upward—Joan’s version of a smile—and she tilted her head toward our boss’s office.
“Hey, Joan,” I said.
“I‟m going down to the warehouse,” said Joan. “I’ll be back around one.” I was Joan’s immediate supervisor, although I didn’t care what she did as long as she finished my assignments on time.
Once Joan left, I fixed Eva with a solid stare. “No.”
“No?” She sounded hurt. “But I haven’t—”
“You sure you’re Catholic? Because you’d have made a great Jewish yenta.” I hummed a few bars of Matchmaker.
“Humph.” She folded her arms over her large chest, then unfolded them and picked up one of the cranes. “Be nice or the birdie dies.”
“Okay, okay.” I hated to waste good minions. “Tell me about him.” I shuddered and held out a hand.
She plopped the little pink bird on my palm. “He’s very nice.”
“Uh-oh. Nice?” I returned the crane to his companions.
“Nice. Sweet.” She gave me a Mom look. “I think you two have a lot in common.”
“Like what?” He hasn’t had sex in decades, either?
“He’s smart and cute in a nerdy kind of way. Like a professor.”
“A professor?” I’ve spent too much time in institutions of higher learning for that to be a selling point. “As in dirty old man chasing twenty-something grad students? Or as in…’Nutty’?”
“You‟re so cynical.”
“Uh-huh. Tonight’s my hair washing night.”
“Please, Regan.” Her chest rose in a dramatic sigh and she fired off a stream of words. “He’s a friend of Kyle’s. Kyle’s been working a lot. We’ve been having a hard time finding the time to see each other. Kyle and Jason have to work again, tonight. I was hoping to see him for dinner. But he doesn’t think that would be fair to Jason. You know, three’s a crowd?” Hope burned from her eyes. “But if you could come along, tonight?” She tried to smile and only succeeded in baring her teeth.
“Okay.” Eva’s desperation vibes were sapping my cranes of their will to plot dark and nefarious deeds. “But if this Jason character turns out to be creepy or weird or anything icky, I’m outta there.”
“Thank you, Regan. Thank you so much!” Afraid she might hug me, I slid my chair back a few inches. She fluttered out of my cubicle.
I peeled another pink sheet off the message pad and began folding an addition to my army.
It was nearly six, the office quieter than a tomb, before I shut down my computer and started to leave. Five days a week was a little too much exposure to any one group of humans, so I preferred to work four, ten-hour days. Usually I came in at seven, had lunch at my desk, and stayed until five-thirty. Tonight, going home had been preempted by a blind date, so I wasn’t in a hurry to leave.
Behind me, a door clicked as Edward Aguirre locked his office. His loafers padded across the carpet as he approached my cubicle. Still stalling, I was in the middle of arranging the cranes into a V-shaped attack formation. I looked up when he reached my doorway.
If not for his technology phobia, Edward might have made a good spy. He had a nondescript, forgettable quality—a middle-aged, portly man of average height and features too bland to be categorized as handsome or ugly. His scalp was downsizing, leaving a small troop of intrepid hairs to do the job of thousands.
“Go home, O’Connell. Get a life.”
“I don’t want a life. Lives are complicated.”
“So true,” Edward said, no doubt thinking about ex-wives and alimony. His ex-wife was a lover of cliché—literally. Two years before, he’d came home to find her playing a rousing game of hide the biscuit with the pool boy.
I gave him a sympathetic smile, in part because it was expected, but also because I genuinely felt sorry for him.
As a rule, I’m not fond of middle-management types, but Edward was okay. He was that familiar archetype in the information technology business: an MBA impersonating a skilled technical professional. Edward, however, had the good sense to realize his failings, and compensated by hiring competent staff and trusting them to get the job done.
“I got a call from Marcus Saiz from Roadrunner Prep School,” he said.
Edward’s smile bared teeth too small for his broad face. “He wanted to tell me how happy he was with the tracking system. Good job, O’Connell.”
“I had a lot of help. Sean did a great job with the interface, and Joan turned their data into something usable.”
“Joan Wallace.” He twirled his car keys around a thick finger. “She’s so strange. Sometimes I wonder how you can work with her.”
I shrugged. “I‟m used to strange.”
He nodded and then his eyes lit up. “You ready for your blind date?”
“Ugh. Does the entire company know?”
“By now, most of the state knows.” Edward’s humor escaped as a low, rolling chuckle. “Who knows? Maybe this guy will be ‘the one’?”
“The one?” Edward, you old romantic.” Edward’s shoulders rose in a conciliatory shrug.
“Anyway,” I said, “Blind dates are always a train wreck. Always.”
The Music of Chaos by P. Kirby, ISBN 978-1-936394-32-6
Text Copyright © 2011 by P. Kirby