Home > Portals and Puppy Dogs(6)

Portals and Puppy Dogs(6)
Author: Amy Lane

“But what?” Simon asked shortly, wanting to get this entire rejecting thing over with.

“But you’re my boss!”

“Do you think I’d fire you or demote you or whatever if you said no?” he asked, appalled.

“No.” Alex’s arms fell to his sides. “You… you’ve always seemed like one of the good guys. Except, uhm, straight.” He lifted his head suddenly. “You have a girlfriend.”

“I do not!” News to Simon.

“You do too! I’ve seen her.”

“Seen who?”

“Girl! Tall. Pretty. Blond. Ginormous blue eyes? Legs for miles? Nice—” He was flailing again, his hands making unmistakable shapes over his chest. “—dresses,” he finished before burying his face in his hands. “You’re straight!”

“No. I’m a very good friend to Chris Lockhart is what I am,” Simon told him, some of his tension easing up a bit.

“What in the hell—”

“You’re talking about Audra,” Simon said patiently. “Audra Lockhart. She’s Chris’s little sister. She’s sort of rooming with me right now as she does freelance reporting.” He made a face. “She’d room with Chris and Jasmine, but, you know, they, uh….”

Alex’s eyes got as big as dinner plates, which meant he paid attention to office gossip too. “Isn’t she pregnant with someone else’s baby and they’re having a hellacious divorce?”

Simon nodded emphatically, because their business partner’s love life was starting to take over his and Gabby’s waking hours. “Yes! Yes, they are. And neither one of them will move out of the house because it’s the size of a cathedral and it cost a fortune. So, uh, Audra needed a place to stay, and my parents are unlikely to visit because my father is a diplomat living in South America right now, and my house is big enough for Audra to have her own wing.” He bit his lip tentatively. “She, uh, is a lovely roommate, in case you’re wondering. I told her she could stay as long as she wanted. We make homemade pizza once a week and watch Mystery Science Theater 3000. But, I mean, I’m pan, so I guess it’s possible, but she’s, you know, not who I’m interested in right now.”

Alex’s mouth fell slowly open. “So, uh….”

“You,” Simon said to make sure he understood. “Who I’m interested in right now. You. So, uh, if you’re not interested, that’s fine. We can still come to lunch if you like, but it might be awkward.”

Alex just kept staring at him.

“More awkward,” Simon corrected, wishing he could wake up this morning as someone else. Someone actually suave and not pretending to be suave, someone who had learned social skills in the cradle and wasn’t faking it in a black turtleneck sweater and a douchebag’s haircut.

“Uhm…,” Simon said. He was going to have to change his shirt when he got back to the office. He could smell his own flop sweat at this point.

“Yes,” Alex said, eyes still big.

“Yes what?”

“Yes, we can have lunch together tomorrow. That’s fine. Thank you for asking. I’d love to.” His mouth, a beguiling cross between lean and full, tilted up at the corners and then went back to its usual neutral position. “It can be a date.”

Simon’s smile was sheer relief. “Wow. This… this may be as hard as I’ve worked for a date since college. Excellent. Fantastic.” He allowed some joy—and some teeth—to show. “Fabulous. Thank you. I’m excited!”

“Good,” Alex said, and then it happened, a relaxed, sweet little smile, and Simon’s heart almost stopped. “Me too.”

They turned back to work then—they really were going to be late—but this time their fingers brushed as they walked.

 

 

Sunset in Hell

 

 

CRAP, Alex was late. Crap crap crap…. He switched gears and pumped his legs faster, his Co-op CTY 2.1 responding wonderfully as always. He knew this route well by now, through the business district of Folsom and up the suburban streets until he hit Sebastian Circle—he was perfectly capable of concentrating on the road while quietly panicking at the same time.

He’d left late.

He’d gotten back from lunch late, which meant he’d stayed a little later than he’d planned to finish the account he was working on that afternoon, which meant he left late, which meant, oh shit, he might not make it home before sunset.

He hadn’t been overstating to Simon—he was so afraid of what would happen if they didn’t have enough people for the ritual. Bad things, he kept thinking. Bad things along the lines of spending a night in the basement of the house from The Conjuring level bad. In his ear his Bluetooth buzzed, and he hit the earpiece to answer the call.

“Where are you?” Bartholomew asked, his voice urgent. “Lachlan’s here, but the last time he performed this spell….”

Bartholomew didn’t have to elaborate. Lachlan was a woodworker by trade, and while it was true he could step in for Alex if he was needed, the trees and shrubs of the neighborhood tended to react rather strongly to his magic.

“Yeah,” Alex told him. “I don’t know if the tree in front of our house can get any bigger.”

“Jordan’s worried the roots might wreak havoc with the septic tanks and the plumbing,” Bartholomew agreed apologetically. “But he’ll step up if you’re not here.”

Because the alternative was to perform the spell with three people instead of five—and as powerful as Jordan and Bartholomew were, the chaos in the neighborhood was getting bad enough to overwhelm a three-person invocation, even if they were two of the people.

“Do I have five minutes?” Alex asked, pouring on the speed. They had to do the ritual exactly at sunset, and he figured at top speed, he was four and a half minutes out.

“You have eight.”

“I’ll take five and a half.” He hit the button on his ear to end the call and hauled ass.

 

 

FIVE minutes later he skidded into the cul-de-sac, dumped his bike near the sidewalk, and sprinted to the center of the street in front of the four houses, three of them practically identical.

The others had set up already, running multicolored threads from the front doors of each house to the duct-taped five-pointed star in the center of the street. They’d done this often enough that they actually had three stars—three, five, and seven pointed, although the seven-pointed star was only for symmetry—spelled out in duct tape. Even numbers were bad fortune.

As Alex ran for his place by the five-pointed star, Lachlan hauled his six-foot-three-inch body toward the driveway as quickly as possible, vaulting over the figure eight of squirrels marching single file as he did so.

The squirrels—which marched from sunrise to sunset, providing the humans executed the ritual so the little beasts could stop at night—created an infinity sign in their single-minded, almost-mechanical march. When they all fell asleep, the inhabitants of Sebastian Circle could see the track worn in the lawns and the driveways in front of the three identical houses.

They weren’t the only sign of the natural world gone amok, either.

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