My name is Simon Berendt, and I’m here to explain. Even senior alchemists must emerge from their laboratories now and then to share the kind of history that people don’t really like to talk about.
People You are Meeting
I won’t dare introduce Dance, Emma, or Drin, but if you are here at this stage of class, I will assume you have met these three already.
Auren Han once worked for Zelin Industries. His rescue of Ira Zelin, their subsequent life on the run, and the collapse of their temporary haven make up the Strangeways story arc. Auren was desperately in love with Greenlaw Tewkes Barret, whose sudden reappearance in his life was the catalyst for much of the ensuing chaos and destruction he experiences. Auren controls a small consulting firm that takes advantage of his previous contacts in the criminal underworld and his extensive experience with shadow operations.
Greenlaw Tewkes Barret is a well-regarded young composer who was trained by Easley Blackwood. When they were in college together, Barret and Auren were lovers. As he became more and more complicit in Zelin’s criminal designs, Auren severed the relationship. At the time of the Snake Crossover, they have reunited, but there’s a lot getting in the way of Auren’s happy ending, including Barret’s refusal to be kept hidden for his own safety.
Barret knows Drin and Dance peripherally through some common aquaintances in the music world, and has taken matters into his own hands, hand-carrying a mysterious viola case to a certainly dangerous rendezvous.
Maxwell Bennie is an ex-cop from Hong Kong with considerable forensic background. He prefers to go by Bennie. How he and Auren first got to know each other is murky, but what is known is that he once worked under Auren Han in Zelin’s Ways and Means Division. He now works as Auren’s operative in Auren’s consulting company, Atsidi. Auren has sent him to investigate worrisome trends that I identified, and to lay a trail to attact Turner, a chemtrail assassin who has targeted Drin for unknown reasons.
Bennie is meticulous, dedicated, intelligent, and quite mad.
I, myself, do not work for Auren Han. I own Strangeways House and created and secured the Strangeways network. I let Auren and his people live here; occasionally I make myself useful to Atsidi.
Other Names to Know
Pen, himself a war relic with strange modifications and a patchy memory, is a mutual friend.
Turner, a very serious threat indeed, has not yet made his formal appearance.
We are in the Deep South, but the location is secret. Fozzie’s down-home Rancho Deluxe for rescued Kiplings (lab-created zoomorphs with many special functions in the last couple of wars) has already repelled attacks from an increasingly creepy collection of altered trackers and assassins.
Please stay tuned for further dispatches from Barret, who will in time find himself getting peeled off a really horrible tour bus.
Bennie prefers to toss an empty house immediately after the owners have departed. It means he gets more time, of course, before they come back and scare the crap out of him for staying too late.
But also he gets more of the scents, the order of things as they’re lived in and used, and he gets a better sense of how things get done. Gotta do that before the uniformed ex-colleagues arrive, for one thing, and absolutely before a housekeeper comes in and fucks everything up.
First thing he does, walk in and take a deep sniff. Got that odor of cheap Mexican weed, he pivots for a different room to start with than if he smells a nice ladylike powder.
This house smells like old books, to start with. No surprise there, the living room is packed floor to ceiling with ratty old covers and mildewed, foxed paper that is clearly more important for content than their mellow appearance on a nice walnut shelf. The fire marshal would have a fit. And there’s pets. There’s a glint of eyes, and the cat disappears into the back. Oh my, what would a nice little cottage like this be without a cat box, anyway? At least it’s not bad. They kept it clean.
The dog is still young, healthy, a fuzzball who’s delighted to see him, dances around him barking her head off, until he offers some bacon. He knows from animals. Need bait for a trap? Bacon. Works every time. She’s no guard dog, she’s too well socialized to be mean to anybody, they’ve clearly worked with her.
“Sit,” he says, and she does, delighted to have company. She’s got a collar, she’s been brushed, she wiggles happily when petted in just the right spot. Somebody’s kept her exercised, running maybe. There’s just a few bleaching stains on the floor by the front door, where she got excited, and the scratch marks. So yeah, the house smells a little more of dog than it might normally.
It has a distinct odor of rosin, too, which are the crumbly amber chunks in little boxes that string players scrape onto their instrument strings by way of making all that noisy fuss with their bows. That “expecting people to applaud” kind of fuss. He knew to expect that. Sappy, pine-needly smell, sort of.
But there’s an undernote in the house. Kind of strange. Not quite like the resinous things grown in the garden outside, and not the same as the rosin, but something like. He’s not tracking it to a single location, either. Makes him worry whether it’s one of Turner’s tricks, and who it’s meant for. Turner may be subtle, but he isn’t always careful about collateral damage, lately. He’s gotten impatient as he gets older. Impatience in a potions master, not good.
Bennie pats the dog while he checks through the electronics in the place. He doesn’t get any howls or whines from his bugmeister, although he doesn’t count on it completely. Like all these stupid arms races, it has its limitations.
But he breathes a little easier about making the dog happy, and sneaking some more water into their bowls, just to be sure.
“Okay, I guess we’re not into T-and-A round here–” Bennie says, standing among the books and squinting at the program guide on their tidy little TV. Not cheap, mind, but nowhere near as big as it might be.
The amateur dragon they painted on the wall is much bigger, above it. It’s a little soft, a little vague for his taste, but it has a sense of humor. He likes that, especially in people who may show up in a hurry, no one knows where they went. He takes pix of the room, as usual.
The programs they’ve been recording from cable are all fairly obscure, mostly political or arts programs. The radio presets are for BBC, Local NPR, big surprise.
The whatchamacallits, Bennie thinks, the Bad Guys, the Long-Hair Cultural Elites, lotta foreign language books on the shelves, too. The Dangerously Independent-Minded Dudes. Bennie grins at that.
The audio equipment is fairly new. Not showy. Just good Bose speakers set up in smart places around the room, and an old-school, plucky-looking amplifier. Bennie whistles, and refrains from stroking it.
Of course, some people’s kitchens are empty display cases, all the shelves for display of ugly expensive maiolica animals, but that just tells him where else to look. Says a lot about them, really.
These people could be like that, but no. They appear to use the kitchen a fair amount, considering Drin has an income that might suggest dining out every night. But no, it’s domestic. Not in a frilly way. Very restrained and chef-macho, except when you open the drawers. The drawers are full of chrome toys that lock together and fight being pulled out for examination.
“Somebody likes buying presents for the cook,” Bennie says into his throat-mike, recording what he finds. “And he uses them twice and puts them away and goes back to his old stuff.”
The space is very tightly packed, lots of spices racked up all over the cabinet doors, some of them leaves with funky shapes, clearly home-dried and packed into bottles. With labels, in an impatient hand, as if they just couldn’t stand it. The cook didn’t need it. Yep, it’s the lady’s hand, he recognizes it.
There’s one scratched out and relabeled with a scientific name in somebody else’s hand.
Bennie pulls the camera around on its strap, takes a picture of it. There aren’t many samples of Dance’s hand floating around official corridors, which is strange for an immigrant who had to fill out papers every which way.
He’d bet that the plant with those leaves is out there in the yard. Somewhere. He’s not sure he’d recognize which one.
Inside the upper cabinets are a wonderful pan-Pacific panorama of oddments. Cans of yellow curry paste and enchilada sauce sit next to bottles of Thai fish sauce and cans of coconut milk. Packets of Korean green tea noodles keep company with dried smoked pasilla chilis in Spanish labeling, and sheets of seaweed, nori, for making sushi.
There’s the bare necessities in dishes to serve up specialties in, and the old black wok still comes in for heavy use.
“Ahh, you have a stubborn cook. But here’s the new stuff,” Bennie says, looking at the plates and bowls in a very plain pattern. Another gift from their patron of the arts, practical man. Happy days. He must like eating Dance’s cooking. Pretty reliable proof how long they’ve been living together, too. Bennie doesn’t enjoy it, but often the state of the cabinets can guide his bets on divorce.
“Time… for the icebox,” Bennie says, gritting his teeth. The dried herbs warn that anything might be in the fridge.
For some people, it might as well be like flipping in the family photo albums, square Tupperware stacked, the pickles lined up by the height of the jar, never a thing out of place.
Others, it’s more like one of those ancient trash dumps, things on top of aging things. Not just science experiments on steroids. Tells the size of Troy.
Tubs of crickets and brine shrimp and mealworms don’t count, everybody has those.
He’s seen it all. Dead lizards and poisonous spiders and illegal bear parts wrapped for study by a vet alongside fur manacles and the dildos in the freezer, he still remembers that one. Boxes of beetles cleaning bones in the living room. The posters in the bedroom were all kinds of holy crap on that one, he’s had dreams about those.
If the people use their kitchen at all, there’s always home-made brew of some kind. No labels. He’s never seen it fail. It can be hard to guess what things are–and he doesn’t dare stick his nose in and take a sniff. If they are labeled, it’s been saved for them by somebody else, or it was put away to give to somebody else.
Things like a Sharpie scribble of, “Phil’s explosive lab, Monday” are very little help. Cute as hell, of considerable interest, in Auren’s parlance, but no help.
“Ahh, we have an amateur chilihead on our hands,” he might say, and smile at a stained plastic box full of sour vinegary goo in which piles of skinny little dried Thai peppers are soaking. The pros always use glass.
There it is, in the fridge. Not the usual. No fooling about with the wimpy stuff. Also, not Korean. These are a Tex-Mex assault against normal palates, the truly lethal little round green ones. Scotch bonnet chilis, soaking in oil in a small glass jar with a tight lid. Only one chilihead, from the jar size. Dance, most likely.
There’s no kimchee jars. Bennie is disappointed. He was looking forward to finding some new brands.
Lots of odd condiments with poorly translated English, though. Bennie likes taking scrupulously careful, well-focused pix of import food, just to drive the lab boys nuts.
“Hello, we do have a real live one. Say hello to the nice jar of gochujang, is this the same red chili paste that your momma used to use, huh? Oh, and look, here’s the sweet potato version. Always thought that was weird. And here’s what he was doing with it. Nice. It’s been an age since I had some ssambap. Mmm, not gonna smell that, but I bet it’s good. Cabbage rolls are cabbage rolls the world over, till you give ’em that ‘tude. Dance, you bad boy, you make me hungry. Yeah, here’s the doenjang he made it with, and have we got a nice store price label on that lid? We do. We know where you indulge, Dance. Wow, that’s getting low. Everything’s running low here.” He clicks his tongue.
There’s the Napa cabbage he was expecting, most of it already chopped away and used.
The freezer is running low too, what’s left is frozen chicken meat and more Western-style mixed veg.
It’s the trash which tells him that other meats get used fresh. Bennie finds the most interesting things in people’s kitchen trashcans.
There’s some really weird produce wrappers packed in this trashcan. Labels for fresh amaranth leaves, fiddlehead fern shoots, dried mushrooms. There’s no sloppy chunks of tomatoes or onion skins or cabbage ribs or beet stems or carrot foliage, either. It probably goes outside in a compost heap.
“Well, I never wondered what cardoon was–” Bennie mutters, and pats the dog to make her pull her nose out of the can. Some meat wrappers testify to a nice chunk of lamb, even nicer chunks of fish that could have become either sushi, sashimi, or the Korean raw fish dishes called hoe. The beef wrappers are to die for.
He shoves them all down lower, hoping it will discourage the dog from eating the plastic, and he feels guilty. It’s a perpetual state, he’s used to it.
There’s a recycling can. Ahh, there’s the kimchee jars, and Bennie grins. “Oh now, you went downmarket, didn’t you, used to living cheap on your own. But now you’ll go fancy when you cook for parties for your two hangooks?”
There’s an English mint jelly jar, and an empty import tea tin of a variety he’s never seen, and some empty coffee bags whose smell makes Bennie mourn for opportunities lost. Taking up space are four empty jars of the giant warehouse-size pickled artichoke hearts, one of them labeled, in blurry loopy ink marks, Dance, underlined. The lady wrote that.
There’s an olive oil bottle with a chunk of something spikey, like rosemary or tarragon, still shoved in the emptied bottle. There’s upscale plastic cases for prosciutto, paper bags for artisanal bread and three kinds of cheese, empty pickle and olive jars. Probably between a hundred and two hundred bucks worth of nibbles, cleaned out. More pix.
Bennie thinks about the lady serving him prosciutto and olives on crusty sourdough bread, and he sighs.
He sees a wad of bathroom trash stuff in there as well. Bennie shifts it carefully, using a gloved finger. Condoms. Used ones, which adds a whole new layer of knowledge. The resinous under-note is quite distinct among the used tissues and wrappers and winds of combed-out hair.
“Well, that’s nice, nobody’s getting left out.” It’s almost painful, the element this adds to the image of Emma offering him that plate of bread.
“Cruel woman,” he sighs, very unprofessionally, while taking hair samples and putting them in labeled envelopes.
The one bathroom, by contrast, seems perfectly ordinary. Inside the rather old-fashioned tiled room, there’s more proof of them having fun in the trash, and that musky odd scent again. Fresher samples, as he expected. Some duplicate sets of condoms go into plastic ziplocs. It’s a risk, come the time it be well be tampering with evidence, but worth it. Genetics, right from the source. He looks through the cabinets.
Its pharmacopoeia is more limited than most. There’s things for getting scratched up, there’s things for tension headaches, there’s a few lotions for calluses and bugbites and an amusing variety of pumice stones that Bennie has seen more often in athlete’s cabinets than in that of society ladies.
“Somebody likes to give the musician presents,” Bennie says. Violinists have calluses, he knows that. So do martial artists.
There’s some interesting exercise gear in the front closet, for people who don’t mess about. Jackets for doing things in nasty weather, wrist weights, bags of Ace bandages that have seen better days.
Catbox in an alcove just outside the closet, with some jazzy new trash arrangements to reduce the perfectly normal, common smell of cat business.
There’s a closet of a room off the kitchen that’s clearly an office for somebody who does overtime. Tidy piles of manila folders, green ledger sheets clipped into long binders, red pencils, all in order on a long shelf at right angles to the computer. He takes pix, but he’d bet there’s nothing to learn in the files left open and innocently on display.
The keys are worn off shiny, the case is two years old, and the installation uses a Pringles can poked onto the wireless router.
He takes the risk, turns it on, and gazes at a screen that’s no log-in.
It’s just a screen saver, asking nothing. Just a blocky green message on a black screen, briefly.
PS: There is no cake. The cake is a lie.
Then it spirals away, and another blinks on.
What’s the frequency, Kenneth?
Four seconds, and the next one replaces it. And it goes on like that, quote after quote, as if it’s talking to him. Maybe it’s set up to tell him something.
Or maybe it’s pulling randomly from some huge file.
These droids are not the droids you are looking for.
You say tomahto, and I say tomayto.
Is that a pickle in your pocket, or are you glad to see me?
There is no intelligent life here.
If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn’t be science, would it?
I’m getting too old for this shit.
Ahh, I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?
“Cute,” Bennie says. He sighs. “Show-off.”
Beam me up, Scotty.
It shuts itself off, with no help from Bennie.
He can’t say he’s terribly surprised. If it’s set off alarms somewhere, he doesn’t hear it. He probably won’t know it until the cavalry shows up in a panda car or black dorky Fibbie suits or something. How do they make their ears stick out like that, anyway? Wads of gum?
He goes into the lady’s room first. Everyone accuses him of being a snoop because he loves tossing lady’s bathrooms, or their bedrooms.
He’s actually more inclined to linger over their clothes. Not interested as much in their powders and creams and pills and arch supports and the more strenuous equipment required to support a nice fresh natural look for going out clubbing under nasty artificial lights–although he will note things that strike him as unusual. He’d rather go through that stuff with a woman agent who knows her brand names, she’ll catch a lot more.
He notes that Emma seems the kind who’s disinclined to fuss. She bought few and bought well and accepted just a few more as presents. Mostly she uses a stick of decent pink and a jazzy evening red, and neutral eye shadow colors, a little foundation.
They’ve given her perfume, though, expensive stuff. Real extractions and genuine oils, no synthetics. Bennie doesn’t squeeze the little atomizer bulb. Enough splash lingers on the atomizer to convince him it’s what the label claims to be. He doesn’t need to smell it any better to be sure. He’s in bad enough shape anyway.
He takes a dribble into double-bagged ziplocs, in spite of the risk, so the lab boys have something to check on. He’s not sure they’d be able to catch Turner at work in something like this. Or whoever they think is Turner, these days. Way out of their class, there.
He holds his breath while he’s pouring, although he’s not sure it’ll save him, if this is Turner’s work, and if it’s broad-spectrum. It certainly isn’t the source of that resinous odor in the house, whatever that is.
“Down, boy,” Bennie says, opening the closet. The dog gives him a puzzled look. Nice dog, waves her tail eagerly, watching him move around.
“Ahh, you nice man, you liked giving the lady some nice things to go out in– what is that? Holy mother of mayhem, that’s not for going out in– on that woman? Are you crazy? That thing must look like– oh my Gawd, give me a heart attack, will you?” He doesn’t dare touch it. Glossy, it might pick up trace dust from his gloves. He’s blinking. “God, who knew librarians go home and wear stuff like– Well, who needs porn channels, when you have this at home? And there’s the boots. Will you look at–”
He’s never going to be able to look that woman in the eye. Well, he couldn’t anyway. It’s not just that he’s so busy having impure thoughts, it’s that she must be half a head taller than him. Damn, they make some fine Amazons in Oztralia, or wherever she’s from.
So he’s tossing the drawers in her room, a little distracted with things doing the hootchee cootchee in his head. He isn’t expecting much when he opens a zippered, padded, silky jewelry bag in a drawer, and finds something flat, a foot long, wound in plastic wrap.
When he opens the cling film, he gets a good distinct whiff of that odd resinous undernote. The flat surfaces catch the light from her window, and glitter.
Pieces, irregular shreds, like crumbles of papyrus, and about the same color. Thin papery stuff, very tough in spite of the shredding. The glassy upper texture is a fine leathery scaling, most of the scales maybe two, three millimeters on a side, too tiny to be anything but real, taken from no reptile he’s ever seen before. Long skinny glittering shreds of shed skin, kept safe in the plastic film.
He snaps pix, wraps it up safe, and puts it back in the pouch, and tucks it ever so gently away where it was. He won’t disturb things by taking that. Somebody knew what they had, hiding that.
He doesn’t see any of it dusted on the furniture in there, none among the shelves, nothing as if it was some knickknack that got broken. None in the sheets of her bed, which are newly made and pristine. Maybe she prefers to sleep by herself, or she isn’t using her bed much.
The other bedroom is full of interest too. This is where the walls are packed with folders of musical scores. Bennie takes lots of pix of Dance’s handwriting hanging out there in full view, without ever moving the scores at all.
This room has the scent of…lots of things. This is where things have been happening, and cleaned up afterward, neatly.
The resinous scent hangs lightly in the room like a whiff of cooking scents, just beginning to fade, alongside the equally distinct smell of the rosin he finds in each of the instrument cases racked on the shelves.
Wary of Turner’s games, he takes samples of rosin in their little boxes, without daring to take in a good deep sniff of anything. But the chunks warm up and smell normal as he handles them. Not whatever that other odd thing is. As a cross-scent it goes fine with the rosin, but it’s not at all the same.
He finds himself holding his breath too much.
His penlight and little camera on a flexi-stick don’t find anything unusual inside any of the soundholes–the banjo is bad, but the mandoline is a real bitch to look at–and it’s disappointing, as it takes a good long time to check that many.
There doesn’t seem to be anything odd tucked under case linings, there’s no obvious pockets or mis-sized support boxes built into the cases. He takes pictures of all the labels, which appear to be original. Maybe somebody will notice something about the make and model and distributor.
Because he was forewarned, he knows what to see when he looks at the queen-sized bed in its musical cubbyhole. Under a raking light from that window, there’s a few fine little glitters scattered in the rumpled folds of the sheets.
He pulls out the paper envelope from his pocket, and tweezers, and proceeds with his business of evidence collection, dating and labeling the findings. No sense in rush, just waste more time making mistakes.
Are they rolling in it, like inhaling some psychoactive dried skin? Is it like getting high from touching live poisonous frogs? Well, maybe he’s seen a few too many funky things in people’s bedrooms, too, forget the fridges.
But he’s trying not to think too much about that painting stenciled onto the living room wall.
An interesting anonymous message pops up on Bennie’s LRT, probably where it shouldn’t be possible.
It appears to be a scanned document.
The document has been crumpled repeatedly and unfolded.
The paper was printed with an older style of music staff.
The composition is written by hand with scoring drafts that are corrected in another color. Corrections include harmony lines and changes of tempo.
The skilled eye will discern that it is a probably intended for piano.
The handwriting is unfamiliar.
Doggerel for the Three Blind Mice
Don Ridcully Innocencio Navarre
is a little confused so far
He refuses to admit his fame
as King of Animals by name
and elected to forget the righteous cost of his quest
three cheers for a virtuous foe!
Escaped from her role, no War Librarian now
it’s so funny and sad
she doesn’t know she’s doing the bad
with Leo, King of the Beasts
she’d be enraged at herself
for schtupping a man who she vowed to take down
three cheers for a virtuous foe!
And here’s the mercy of loss
the Prince of Peace, no you can’t kill him
forget what the monster was intended to be
he’s a homegrown wonder
a virtuously prodigiously self-made man
sad that his music can still give you such a final solution
three cheers for a virtuous foe!
The point of Turner is that he cannot be found.
Bennie, sitting in a truckstop outside of Hangrenade, OR, is scribbling sketches in his LRT. No one, no fucking one, has come sniffing his bait, and he’s just getting ready to decide to lay in a couple more bubbles in the texture of the lie, the one that’s sent Dance and Drin and Emma, who is holy shit the hottest woman Bennie has ever seen, to Vancouver for a lay-low.
Bennie gets a little bit cute with the hotel reservations, asks for a California King.
After that, he thinks about Turner.
He thinks about the Unabomber, that wacky CIA sketch that circulated,
looking nice and ominous, strangely fashion-conscious in those aviator frames, and that fucked-up crazy-beard bastard Kaczynski. Not gonna happen. Even if he cops a visual, even if somebody in Auren’s data chopping unit has a prophetic dream and gets him a visual, it’s background noise, there’s no there there, nothing that cannot be changed for the sake of a kill.
The waitress brings him a tureen-sized serving of chocolate pudding.
Bennie’s not even sure the guy is real. What if “Turner” is just a code name for a set of procedures?
He types a disgruntled couple sentences into the LRT. Almost immediately he gets an answer. Turner is real guy. Teeth.
What the fuck? Teeth? Check military dental records.
“Well, fuck me standing upside down,” Bennie mutters, and eats his pudding.