A Gentle Request

Drin hadn’t been sure Pen would come, and Barret had just shrugged. “Anybody’s guess,” he says, as he sits down on the floor, not quite level with Dance, but much closer. Not looming over him.

“Barret,” Dance says, staring mostly at the ceiling. “Whatever is in that case, you take a copy of that missing Locatelli piece back with you, you just give it whatever weird tar-roof noises you like, right?”

He rolls his head over to see Barret grin. “Oh no, you are going play that damn instrument for me like all the fiends of hell, you hear me? All three parts, you know that SOB wrote it as a trio. I have things that need doing with your playing. I’ve got– we’ve got– recordings to make.”

“Sounds like one of those time paradoxes, like one of those silly movie things.” His tail makes a irritable thump on the floor, turning a most remarkable purple with gold glitters, like a drag queen in a fury.

“Silly movie things? I am talking to a guy with– never mind.”

“Besides, you have rock stars. Collaborate with them.”

“Any rock stars who’d have me are boring. I don’t want rock stars. I want you. You and that instrument–it makes my brain itch.”

Dance mutters something rude about where he can scratch, but not very loudly. He coughs, carefully.

“Please, Dance, can I please sweet-talk you into–”

“Yes,” Drin says, and settles down next to Dance. He props Dance’s head and shoulders higher on his own chest. It makes breathing easier, his coughing eases.

“Yes?” Dance says, raspy.

“Yes he can,” Drin says, his voice rumbling in his chest. “Talk you into it, I mean. I for one, would strongly like to hear such a remarkable collaboration, and I’m sure Emma would agree.”

The tail makes a sarcastic little flippy gesture, as if to say, Well then, that’s settled, isn’t it? and thumps Drin on the leg, which only makes him grin, and stroke it until it curls around for more, coiling up shamelessly into what’s left of his lap, where the rest of Dance’s body isn’t taking all of the space.

“Well,” Emma says, “There’s Moses for you. Here’s the tablets, don’t forget the goats. Really. You got it? You have been given the word.”

Barret cracks up.

Then the door opens, and they all look up.

Pen wobbles slowly and carefully across the room, sits down gingerly on an ottoman next to Emma’s bed. Barret, already sitting on the floor, his long legs improbably folded, reaches a hand towards him.

“Pen, how’s Estelle,” he asks quietly.

Dance can hear her harsh breathing in the room beyond one wall, the corner, now he knows who it must be. But she’s not alone in that. There’s a lot of other people in this house who aren’t having an easy time of it, either.

“Bad,” the man, Pen, answers. “She’s bad. I’m sorry. It’s the…it’s the Snake, don’t you know.”

Dance is propped up now, feeling stronger, his head in Drin’s lap, vast length of tail spilled like a prodigious fall of hair, looped on itself, tip waving gently. He’s a little embarrassed by how much of it there is now. Damn thing is still growing.

“Who’s Estelle?” he asks the room, feeling oblivious as dirt, it’s something he missed, somewhere, lost in the last eight or ten hours.

“Jesus, sorry, man, you haven’t actually met. Pen Howell,” Barret says, “this is Dance, Auren Han sent–”

“Show me the viola,” Pen says. His voice is mild, so mild.

“We haven’t gotten the case open, yet,” Barret says, sliding it into the middle of the floor. “Dance found the tune, the Locatelli. But we’re not into the viola case. All these weird-assed numerical trucker’s knots. Why is my boyfriend making recursive code knots all over the place? What’s inside, man, a bomb? Auren said you’d know.”

“Did he.” Pen passes a hand over his face. Dance knows that coloring, the funny ivory tinge, the blood vessels breaking or broken across his high cheekbones; worked with a guy, last year, who looked like that just before his kidneys gave out. Percussionist. Nice guy, always late to a gig. Dead, now, Dance is pretty sure.

“Auren said,” Barret is trying again, softer, more precise, a line between his eyebrows, “you have a lot of experience with using sonority to protect information, to reveal it.”

man in hat praying on lectern
Pen Howell

“Did he tell you why?” Pen’s pale blue eyes are finally on him. Red-rimmed. His hands are folding and unfolding in his lap.

“Said you’d want to help a fellow inmate,” Barret whispers. “Said you wouldn’t let Dance die of it, you’d help him disentangle–”

“Yes, well, let’s get on with it!”

And just like that, with that shout that struck him sharp as the sound of a pistol, Pen’s on his feet, wearing a brilliant smile.

“Put the lady on a table,” he says briskly. “We’ll begin the examination, can’t do it on the floor, that’d be rude, protocol, protocol…”

The battered old viola case is lifted up onto a dainty writing table parked against the wall, under the window, where the old storm-shutter is banging rhythmically in its casement.

Dance sees Pen hesitate a moment, rest his hand against the glass. “We’ll have to wake her gently. Keep her merry. Like the house, and like you,” he whispers. “Tree, stay a bit more. Hold fast. Hold a little more, darling.” Then he gives himself a little shake, flashes a look over his shoulder at Dance.

Pen has an ancient face. His beard, brown and grey, is a little pointy; his features are sharp, could have come off a coin or a commemorative medal for the destruction of the Spanish Armada. Emma will know where this man comes from; Dance can’t quite place his accent, which feels compound to his ears.

“Right, first things first,” Pen says, “it’s not a bomb.”

“That’s…that’s good,” Dance replies, hoarsely.

“Might as well be.”

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