Author’s note: In this excerpt, we join our main character, Finn LeHolme who has just traveled in a secret elevator hidden in a pantry deep into an underground ravine. Finn’s part-time job is inspecting homes for the town of North Brunswick, New Jersey. His part time employer, Alvaro Luz, sent him to this house promising Finn he’d find something purposeful in it. Fresh off being dumped (again) by his girlfriend Lissette, Finn decides to investigate Alvaro’s proposition. Needless to say, Finn, who is overly cautious, remarkably observant and and often too intelligent for his own good, is in a panic when we join him.
About 100 feet from the door I start to think about Alvaro and his little inspirational chat that deposited me down this rabbit hole. Before I can recall his words, I imagine packing Alvaro into an Allure Stainless Steel Half moon trash container and dropping him in the shallow end of a pool. That Lilliputian bastard better be right about my purpose. And on the other side of that door better be a clearly labeled, simple-to-use Lissette relationship fixer, charged and ready to deploy. Because I’m doing it again. I’m breaking a rule, my only rule really. I’m hoping again.
Hoping that those self-help books are what’s wrong with me and not me myself for once. Hoping I’m allowed to advance at something. Hoping most of all that there’s not much more to this night than opening that door.
It’s nothing special as far as doors go. Unpainted metal framed into rock. New. Definitely very new. The ground in front of it has a groove where the old door’s corner clearly dragged. This door has no damage to its corner and none of its edges show sign of wear. Even the hinges smell of fresh machine oil. The paint is a dry, vibrant blue and appears to be unsealed. The wet chilly environment down here will deface it soon enough. Who comes all the way down here to put a new door into a frame?
For that matter, who comes down here at all? I will surely know soon enough as I hear the elevator begin a clackety return journey to the surface. And now its serious. Up to this point I could’ve turned around and no one would’ve known I was here. But someone is coming, and there’s nowhere for me to go but forward. I take one last look around and try to form a picture of what might be on the other side.
This place is cold, humid from the water, lit with ugly utilitarian lights, has a rough path, and a new, hastily painted door. I don’t watch horror movies, not because they’re frightening but because I hate inconsistencies, nonetheless, I feel safe in assuming I’m not in a good place. Just the same, no man with my brain affliction could come this far to not open this door, so even if death awaits me on the other side, it’s time to turn the knob. But not before I stare at the door for at least three minutes.
Maybe I can jump back if I need to when I open it. Good plan. I practice the move first and then fall flat on my face when a voice calls to me from somewhere off in the darkness.
—Just go in already!
A man, judging by his gravely voice, far off the path, high above me hidden in the darkness points a laser sight on the door and flickers it a few times. I hesitate.
—Seriously, no need to do the jumping back thing. Go in, they’re expecting you.
I rise awkwardly and dust myself off turning my head left in an attempt to connect the voice to a face. No deal. Whoever is off in the distance is guarding the door with either a high tech rifle or the mother of all corporate presentation lasers, and is well hidden from inept creatures such as myself. I point at the door.
—So, just go… um, go right in then?
The laser circles the knob a few times as the voice rings back in an almost friendly tone.
I grab the knob and wave to an invisible sniper.
—Kay, um. Thanks.
The door swings easily open and reveals a furnished office lobby with soft lighting. Sandstone walls sit behind secure glass walls. The ceiling is covered in black sound control cloth with dimmed lights in perfectly spaced locations. An attractive brunette dressed in office casual sits behind a mahogany desk and reaches for a two way radio on her desk.
—LeHolme’s here. Should I have him wait or come right in?
Another gravelly voice issues a decision through the radio.
—Send him in, geez how long was he out there anyway?
—12 minutes and 21 seconds. I’ll send him in. Looks like his counterpart is on the way in as well.
—Great, tactical is assembled, just waiting on these two.
When things are so strange that they cannot be processed by my feverish brain, I revert to the only thing I do well—retail design. I look at the lobby and get a rhythm for it as best I can. It’s virtually impossible. Just behind the receptionist is a set of steps leading down to a giant steel door with some kind of keypad; very modern. But resting on the sand colored stone walls around me are transplanted wall frescos illuminated by miniature spot lights like an art gallery.
At this point I’ve no idea just what the hell is going on, so I decide to ask.
—Just what the hell is going on?!
The receptionist takes out a box identical to the one I saw in Alvaro’s office.
I reluctantly pull the key from my pocket and hold it short of her grasp.
—Tell me what’s going on.
She places her hand on the table. Her skin is soft and natural, her nails unpainted but manicured perfectly. She stares up at me chews her upper lip as if she’s trying to recall an important fact. She leans back in her chair, closes the box and points to the ceiling.
—I’m sorry Finn, my name is Eleni. I’m new here in this engine. I sometimes forget that Alvaro Luz doesn’t tell his recruits much.
She grins, makes quote fingers and shrugs.
—Guess he likes to let them “find themselves”.
I makes quote fingers, too.
—Look, Eleni, I don’t know what I’ve been recruited for, but I’m not what you’d call a “big proponent” of Alvaro’s methods. Maybe you could tell me why I’ve just travelled from a pantry in an empty house deep into the earth to find a woman behind the desk of an art gallery with a tactical team on the line and a sniper outside the door?
She smiles and reaches over the desk to tug me closer by my sleeves. I amble forward surprised that she she hasn’t attempted to grab the key. Surprised that she’s so quick to touch. She brushes off the wrinkles she’s made in my jacket sleeves and plops back into her chair laughing.
—I don’t mean to use you Finn, but there’s this one light in the ceiling behind you that drives me nuts and you were so close to blocking it for me. I just needed you an inch closer.
—Glad to help out. Can you maybe start telling me what this all is?
And she’s totally about to tell me the whole thing when the door I just came through swings open and a woman with shoulder length pitch black hair, a bruised, brown leather jacket, black cargo pants and oxblood steel-toed boots marches in, takes one look at me, grabs the key in my hand and puts it on the desk along with her key. She points a thumb at me and starts walking for the stairs behind the desk.
—This Finn? You Finn?
Eleni hands mystery woman a folder and another one of those keys out of the box.
—Yes, that’s Finn. Finn this is Chloe.
Chloe has already descended the stairs and is out of view. Eleni motions with her finger.
—Finn, you’ll want to catch up with Chloe. We’ll talk if I’m still on the continent next time you’re here.
I am honestly feeling more disappointed about that statement than I felt about getting dropped by Lissette. I’ve known Eleni for 45 seconds and she’s nicer than maybe any woman I’ve ever met.
—On the continent? You’re a traveling receptionist?
She laughs out loud with the cutest, most uncool snort, puts a folder in my hand and points to the stairs behind her where Chloe is walking through the now open door.
—Finn, I’m not a receptionist any more than you’re a retail manager.
I don’t have the strength to argue with this woman. She has penetrated every defense I have with her snorty laugh. As I walk down the stairs behind her, I look back and wave as it dawns on me that she knows I’m a retail manager. Or that I’m not a retail manager according to her. Chloe calls from down a long corridor on the other side of the giant door.
—Can we let’s go?
I make my way down the dimly lit corridor. Its rhythm is fast. Work done quickly to hew rock into a hallway. Kind of job done where the place the hallway leads to is more important than anything around it. Chloe steps left around a corner and I pick up the pace to find her. Around the corner is an open door with one far less attractive meet and greet crew than Eleni. A man as tall as I am stands at the door in a black sweater with an eyepatch and a cigar in his hand. His thinning white hair cut military short on his reddish skin. He makes me wonder if I’m about to join a poorly costumed theatrical group.
—Holy crap you’re slow.
—I’m Finn. I have no idea why I’m here.
—Yeah, we know. Come in and we’ll get to all that.