The Key To Eternity
Lia passed the full-body scanner at the airport and gave the finger to the camera on the wall. “I hope you enjoyed the view, asshole,” she said under her breath.
The guard by the scanner gave her an apologetic smile.
She closed her eyes halfway, but smiled back, shaking her head.
Stepping into her sensible travel shoes, she picked up her wheeled travel bag and headed to the plane. It was a long trip from Chicago to Los Angeles; she had a good nap ahead.
Lia’s eyes opened when she felt the pang in her stomach, and her ears started buzzing. The plane glided for a minute and then dived again. She pinched her nose and blew to stabilize the pressure in her ears, gritting her teeth in discomfort.
The wheels thumped when they touched the ground, and the pilot took the big bird to an easy stop.
* * *
Lia fumbled her key in a keyhole that refused to catch. She sighed. So far, everything has been fine, but now the door doesn´t want to open. It’s laughing at me, that’s it.
She shook her head when she realized what she was thinking. This isn’t like me at all. Ever since my boss told me about this trip, I’ve been feeling off.
She tried again, keeping her breathing under control. The key clicked and the door opened. Finally!
She entered the dark space and probed the wall for a light switch. The living room of her home for the next few weeks came to view: tan walls, high ceilings and crown molding painted white. Two paintings of abstract geometric patterns hung on the walls. The brown leather sectional that faced the 80s style gas fireplace, with its tarnished brass fixtures, did nothing to brighten the space.
Lia brought in her wheeled suitcase and closed the door. Something feels wrong.
“Oh well. It’s only a month or so,” she reminded herself to dispel the uneasy feeling. “What if it looks like a cardboard box? I´m not here to stay.” Oops, she realized. My cat’s not here, so I’ll have to keep the self-talk to the minimum.
She carried the bag to the nearest bedroom and tossed her carryon with her sketchpad and pencils in it onto the bed. Sending a quick text to let her supervisor Jerry know she’d arrived, she headed to the bathroom for a shower.
Afterwards, she felt almost human and decided to call Clarissa. Her best friend answered at the second beep.
“What took you so long?”
“I needed a shower.”
“Ah. Yeah, sticky is bad. So… everything peachy?”
“Yeah, you could say so.”
“Don´t bullshit me. What´s going on?”
I should never sugarcoat anything with her. She sees right through it all. “Nothing. Not really. The condo looks like a cardboard box and gives me the creeps, but, nothing.”
“Mmm. I´m laying down a short Tarot spread for you. Hang in there. I see problems, and maybe even danger, but oh, so much fun in your future.”
Lia snorted. “Yeah, right. You see what you want there. You don´t fool me.”
Clarissa chuckled. “I know. That´s how it works.”
Lia smiled. She always finds a way to make me feel better. “All right, big day tomorrow. Better go to bed.”
“Night. Don´t forget to brush… and use condoms.”
Sure. Not that I’d mind a fling but… She looked down at her plump body and bit her lip, humor fading. “Bye, Clarissa.”
* * *
Lia felt a pang of angst as she entered the meeting room. She found eyes focused on her, and none of them looked friendly.
“I see you finally decided to join us, Ms. MacArthur,” one stranger greeted her sarcastically. Short with a bald head and a round belly to match, the man’s jaw had clenched in irritation.
“I´m sorry,” Lia answered, sitting in the only empty chair, close to a tall, thin man with tan skin, dark hair and threatening dark eyes. Yuck! I would hate to have him behind me on a deserted street. “I was told that the meeting was 9:30. It’s 9:20. Am I missing something?”
“Yes, you are, Miss MacArthur. It’s 10:20. You are one hour late.”
“The time zone…” Lia’s head shot up and she took in Jerry, her supervisor. He looked at her, an apology lingering in the crinkled corners of his eyes.
She looked at her watch again. 9:20. “I set my clock last night. I used the…” She remembered that she had never checked the clock at the townhouse for accuracy. She just assumed it had the right hour and synchronized her phone with it. “I used the clock in the apartment to set mine.”
The tan guy raised one eyebrow. “Excuses?” His lips curled into a smug grin.
Lia swallowed. This jerk. Oh, my God.
He leaned forward, waiting.
Arguing won’t help me… and why would the clock in the apartment be one hour wrong? Not twenty minutes. Not three hours and seventeen minutes, but exactly one hour wrong… She drew in a deep breath. This was intentional. She firmed her jaw. They won’t get rid of me this easily, even if I have to pretend to be humble just to get through this meeting. “Right, I apologize. It will not happen again.”
“We certainly hope not, Ms. MacArthur, because we take punctuality very seriously. It shows what a person is made of. You will not have a second chance,” the tall man said. He grinned, showing white teeth with unaccountably sharp canines.
Lia received the comment as a punch in her stomach. Heat, pain and anger climbed all the way to her mouth. She bit down on her lips. Nice girls don´t tell tall, tanned, disgusting and dangerous what he deserves to hear. Nice girls eat it with fries and start looking for another job the same day. Unlike his colleague, this man was tall, even seated. His medium-brown skin gave her no particular indication of his racial background. Middle Eastern? Latino? Italian? Or just a WASP with a tan? At any rate, his faint hint of a smirk is disgusting.
“Don’t worry,” she answered through gritted teeth. “If at any future meeting I don’t arrive on time, it’s because I got a better offer and decided to move on.”
Jerry Walker, her boss, opened his eyes wide and looked at her apologetically.
He should have stood up for me, saying that at Burton and Burton, they’re proud to have me, yet he’s letting these people push me around.
“Lia, this is Earl Lancaster, CFO of Van Zandt enterprises,” he indicated the thin rude man, “and general manager and CEO of the Los Angeles branch, Mark Moravian.”
“Charmed,” she lied, gritting her teeth.
Moravian sulked, but Lancaster grinned back, and she shuddered.
* * *
Lia´s favorite latte materialized in front of her eyes.
“Forgive me, please?” Jerry´s voice trailed from behind her.
“Only for my latte, Judas,” she scolded and took a deep gulp of her drug of choice. Only then did she look at her supervisor. Fiftyish, though not unattractive, with a cap of silvering light brown hair, a medium build, and cheekbones that would stand the test of time, his face had twisted into lines of supreme contrition.
He broke eye contact, lifted his cell, and swiped nervously a couple of times. “I emailed the bosses saying that this job is not a good idea. These guys scare the shit out of me.”
Lia read the words on Jerry´s phone, which he’d shoved right under her nose, while he spoke, and sure enough, he’d requested the owners of Burton and Burton consider ending their association with Van Zandt enterprises, due to the extreme hostility of the CFO and CEO.
The owners had kindly and professionally responded that Jerry should suck it up and get back to work.
Wonderful way to show trust in your employees, she thought bitterly. Are we people or just a paycheck to them?
Grumpy at Jerry, the job and the office manager, Lia snapped at the only person within reach. “I don´t know what to say about that. Choosing assignments is not my job. Mr. Short and Angry Moravian and Mr. Tan and Nasty Lancaster have told me I’m on thin ice. This place may suck ass, but I like my job in general, so I’m going to sketch and ignore you now. Go do something useful with your life. I have work to do.”
Jerry snorted at her tough-girl persona and she went back to her plans.
* * *
At noon, Lia felt uncomfortable, turned around and there he was. Tall, Tanned and Disgusting had stepped right up behind her, close enough to touch her back, without saying a word. His deep eyes bored into her.
“Is it anything you wish to discuss, Mr. Lancaster?” she asked, not even trying to be nice. What a creeper. I have every right to be pissed.
“Not really. I’d just like to extend to you an invitation. We’re taking Jerry out for lunch at the beach. The bistro has a nice view of the jetties and the building you’re so hasty to tear apart.”
She gaped. What on earth is he talking about? I’ve barely started my plans. All they’ve seen is my pitch… which they selected and approved.
Not knowing whether to feel excited for the lunch at the beach or upset over the derogatory comment, she bit her lip. What is it with this guy? Why is he so determined to pick on me? Well, I’ll take a hard pass on that one. The bistro will still be there when I’m done. “It´s alright. I have work to do. I´ll just grab a sandwich.” Take that, creep.
“No, Miss MacArthur. It is a business lunch, and Mark sent me to escort you. You will come… unless you want to miss your second meeting?” The man smirked, and Lia wanted to smack him so badly that her hand already hurt in anticipation.
“Fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “Are you always so annoying, or you are making an exception for me?”
He gave her a once over and his smirk grew. “No, darling. You do not have anything that merits special treatment.”
Lia felt heat rising up her neck. This is too much. Okay, so at size sixteen—eighteen at that time of the month—I’m not swimsuit model material. I’ve been teased for being a fat girl before, but no one has ever made me feel so humiliated in my life. She wished so much to be one of those fast, snappy women, but she wasn´t. Her tough persona could only take her so far. In situations like this, where she wanted to curl up and howl, it abandoned her.
His insulting gaze turned to intense scrutiny, and then some sort of dawning awareness. A wicked grin spread across his face.
Her cheeks flared red while she got up, took her purse, and walked ahead, trying hard to keep her head up and not swing her curvaceous hips too much.
* * *
The bistro had a beautiful ocean view. Lia could see the jetties and the sea lions in the distance. The air smelled like salt. A shack in pitiful condition sat in the middle of the beach, breaking the ambiance. Other than that, it was a dream place for a bed and breakfast.
People in varying states of undress walked the street as if it was the most natural thing in the world. A juggler showed his amazing skill, throwing and catching running chainsaws. Lia had never seen so many weird characters in one place. Venice Beach is definitely a world in its own. Her mind started spinning with details that would make her project blend and, at the same, become iconic in this eclectic place.
She craned her neck and looked carefully at the location of the building—the light, the ground, and the dimensions—as much as she could from the bistro. A Victorian manor house, which looked as if it hadn’t been updated since it was built, hunkered across the street from the beach, its peeling paint and cracked windows forlorn. I’ll have a closer look before going back to the office.
There’s beauty in its bones, though, she thought. With some love, and a historical registration, people will line up to stay here. She stared harder. Wait, wasn’t the carport on the right? Wasn’t that bay window on the left?
Her breath caught. The picture in front of her was not the same as the one in her plans. Nothing I’ve done so far is going to work; I have to redo my sketches from scratch.
“Sure, no problem. We can have the final proposal for next Monday. We have it almost nailed by now.” Jerry´s voice intruded in her consciousness.
She looked at him, her eyes wide.
“Something to say, Miss MacArthur? Isn´t the Burton and Burton star architect able to finish the proposal in time?” Earl sneered, smiling his oily smile.
“I would,” she said spitting her words, “if I had been provided with accurate information. Look at the building! Everything is wrong!”
“What are you talking about, Lia?” Jerry gave her the look. She knew that look. It meant do not discuss anything in public.
“Nothing,” she muttered. “I need to see the building up close. If you’ll excuse me…”
* * *
Lia lifted her head from the plans she’d been working on all day, trying to fix the differences between reality and the material she had received. She examined the measurements and pictures her people had taken two months before, and they supported the information provided.
It’s so weird, almost as if the place rotated and twisted. How could the terrain change?
True, Los Angeles had been built near a fault line, and the land could undergo seismic shifts, but what about the building on it? Wouldn´t it break apart if the land underneath just changed its shape? Yet, there it was, in one piece, but different. Like magic.
A creeping sense of emptiness crept up her spine, and she realized the office the building team had provided for her use was deserted. Her computer marked 6:30 local time. She shivered and the hair on the back of her neck lifted. She had no idea why.
Fear gripped her, and she couldn´t stay a minute longer. This is a problem. How am I going to finish the project in the time projected if I can only work regular hours?
Unable to resist the compulsion to leave, she gathered her papers. Fine, I’ll work at the townhouse.
She remembered Mr. Tall, Tanned and Disgusting, and her angst grew. She could almost see his eyes like black pits, boring holes in her soul. The uneasy feeling grew even more, touching the dangerous border of hysteria.
“I have to get out of here,” she muttered. She picked up her bag and some papers and ran out of the office, forgetting half of the material she needed to go on working at home.
* * *
It’s almost too easy,” Mark said out loud, chuckling as he made threatening clawing motions over the surface of the onyx orb they used to harass people. “She’s so susceptible. A few more days of this and she’ll be running for the hills on her own. Poor, poor Sarah will just have to keep looking for another way to get rid of us. A way she’ll never actually find.”
“Wait,” Earl said, sliding open the hidden panel that concealed the inner network of passages of rooms from which they observed—and sometimes harassed—visitors to their workplace.
“Wait for what?” Mark demanded. His face began to grow hot, and he could feel Hulk mode lurking around the edges of his awareness. “You agreed with me. Burton and Burton could not be involved in this project. Particularly not their young rising star, who has such a knack for ‘feeling’ buildings. If she gets her hands on the house, think of what we lose!”
“Oh, I know,” Earl replied, his voice oozing oily charm as always. “She will never be allowed to order a single renovation. However, have you taken a good look at her?”
“She’s fat,” Mark scoffed. “Not ugly, but definitely too pudgy for my taste.”
“No, you fool,” Earl snapped. “Don’t you ever look beyond the surface? She’s not just pretty. She’s… she’s unique. I’m not sure what she is exactly, though fully human, or even human with abilities doesn’t cover it. Something more powerful than her the air energy rising from her makes me wonder. She of our world, yet not. I think she might be the key.”