Judith Marley sat at one end of the long table in the conference room. The burnished wood surface bestowed a warmth to the reflected light from the overhead flourescents, making them nearly tolerable. The chair was utilitarian, as most conference room chairs were, but it was comfortable enough.
She pulled another tissue out of the box on the table in front of her (because Kleenex is a trademarked brand name, and the repercussions of pulling out a Kleenex without use of the trademark symbol could complicate all their lives for months or even years) and wiped her eyes again.
She was stunned. Or at least, she had been stunned. Now she was merely numb. She couldn't believe that Jason was dead, even less that he had died in her office. He'd been filling in for her for less than a day when it had happened.
She sniffled again, pulled another generic tissue from the box, and blew her nose.
A rap at the conference room door drew her attention outward again. The door opened, and Rebecca stuck her head in.
"You okay?" Rebecca asked.
Judith nodded. "I will be."
Rebecca stepped into the room. "Can you manage a short meeting?"
Judith nodded again. "Sure. I'll be fine"
Rebecca glanced out the door and signalled with her hand. A moment later, Alan and Burt entered. Rebecca took the seat at the opposite end of the table from Judith, and Alan and Burt took seats along opposite sides.
Susan darted in as Burt was settling into his chair. She clutched a notepad to her chest like it was her lifeline to sanity.
"Billy's on his way up," Susan said as she pulled out the chair to Rebecca's left, "and Jake will be here in a few minutes."
Judith found herself feeling glad for the meeting all of a sudden. She'd been hustled off to the conference room when she'd arrived back from her holiday, as her office was still considered a crime scene, and the sheer size of the room was almost overwhelming to her.
A long shadow slid down the door, and Amanda Frosst entered the room. Judith looked up as the tall, imposing figure strode towards the table. Amanda was the new head of the science-fiction department, and she seemed well suited to the position, as she looked and acted rather like an alien. Her demeanour was cool, detached, and passionless, and she possessed an unusual wardrobe. At the moment, she was wearing a shimmering silver minidress and outrageously large silver hoop earrings. No one even an inch shorter than Amanda would have been able to get away with them.
Alan and Burt both goggled at Amanda as she slid into the chair opposite Susan and crossed her unimaginably long and shapely legs.
Old Billy huffed and puffed his way into the room just as Amanda's lengthy leg-crossing procedure concluded. "What blight gathers ye here together today?" he said with a chuckle as he grabbed the chair beside Burt.
"Blights upon blights, Billy," Rebecca said. There was no trace of humor in her voice.
"I won't bother waiting for Jake," she continued, "since he already knows everything that's going on. I just wanted to bring everyone in and give you all an update."
She shifted in her chair before speaking again.
"This place is a complete disaster," Rebecca said without preamble. "There's no point in trying to dress it up or make it out to be anything else. We are, currently, as of this moment, completely screwed."
"Your honesty is disarming," Amanda said.
"As are your legs, my fine young maiden," Billy said with a twinkle.
Amanda levelled her cool gaze at him. "Grow up," she said, and turned her attention back to Rebecca.
"If I may continue," Rebecca said. "The situation is this: The phones are out, the computers are acting up, and we have a murder on our hands. How things could get any worse is beyond me."
With impeccably bad timing, Jake chose that exact moment to enter the room.
"Hey, everyone," he said. "Listen, I've brought someone with me. Someone I think can help."
"By all means," Rebecca said.
Jake looked out into the hall and made a beckoning gesture. His companion stepped into the room and looked around.
Judith couldn't believe what she was seeing. The woman Jake had brought with him was of dark hair and complexion and was clad in a long, flowing robe and matching bandana. Her fingers were adorned with rings of every imaginable style, and her neck was similarly festooned with a wide variety of necklaces and chains.
"This is Darla," Jake said. "She's a psychic."
"Fortune-teller, dearest," Darla said, her voice deep and smoky.
Alan made a grunting sound. Amanda glared at the new arrival. Burt tapped his pen on the table. Susan cleared her throat.
Billy leaned back in his chair and chuckled. "Lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my," he said.
Judith rolled her eyes. Billy had a knack for making comments that were completely unrelated to anything that was going on. Anywhere. In the world.
"Jake," Rebecca said, "this is really inappropriate."
"Well, considering we have no phones or computers," Jake said. "I figured we might as well try to investigate in a different way."
Rebecca sighed. "Jake, she's one of..." She lowered her voice. "She's one of Nick's."
"Nice going, Jake," Alan muttered.
"Nick? Nick who?" Jake asked.
"Nick who created Protagonize?" Rebecca replied.
"Oh, that Nick." Jake paused to think. "He writes?"
Burt let out a frustrated sigh. "Of course he writes, Jake. Why would someone go to the trouble of creating a website for writers if they didn't write themselves?"
"I dunno," Jake said.
Susan looked frightened. "Jake," she said. "He can edit... anything!"
"All right, all right," Jake said, putting his hands up in front of him. "I get it. Let's just not make him mad, then, okay? Can we handle that?"
Amanda allowed a slight, huffy, puff of air to escape her nose. "You are a moron," she said.
"Thanks, Amanda," Rebecca said. "That's really helpful." She gestured to Jake. "Fine. Sit her down. Let her do her thing. We've got nothing to lose at this point."
Jake gestured to Darla.
"Thank you, dearest," she said as she rounded the table and sat down in the middle of the side where Billy and Burt were sitting.
She pulled a deck of cards out of her bag and shuffled it. Deftly, she placed thirteen cards face down on the table, twelve in a circle and one in the centre. Once the pattern was complete, she turned each of the cards over, in the same order she had placed them on the table.
She stared at the spread for a moment, and then began to speak.
"These three cards represent a force of chaos that has been unleashed and seeks revenge for being badly written."
"Sounds like Joe," Alan said.
"That's pretty specific," Rebecca said.
"Well, dearest," Darla said, "this chapter is getting really wordy, and I'm trying to hurry things along here."
"Okay," Rebecca said. "I can live with that."
"These next three cards represent the vilest evil imaginable. An almost unspeakable force of mayhem and disaster. Created by the most twisted minds on Protagonize."
"The Diabolically Villainous Challenge?" Judith offered.
"Yes!" Darla cried, pointing a crooked finger at Judith.
Rebecca leaned forward. "What else?"
"The next three represent a twisted and broken individual, rebuilt with spare parts and consumer electronics. A mind filled with hate and rage."
Jake groaned. "I just finished getting rid of him. How can he still be around?"
Rebecca looked up at him. "You mean General Villainous?"
Darla nodded thoughtfully. "On Protagonize, all things are possible."
"Well that's just great," Alan muttered.
"And these last three cards," Darla continued, "they are less clear to me. They have something to do with..." She stared at the cards more closely. "... with time."
"As in, time running out?" Burt asked.
"As in, this is a complete waste of time," Amanda said.
"What about the middle card?" Rebecca asked.
"Ah, the middle card," Darla said. "This represents..." She flipped it over. "...my lunch." She raised her eyebrows. "Ah, pizza pockets today. Nice."
Judith looked around the table and, not for the first time, wondered about her career choice.