People hire me to find things for them. I have a special skill that may not seem like a big deal at first blush, but if you think about, you’d realize just how useful it can be. Like now. I don’t have a gun. I don’t know how to fight. But I’m on the run from guys who seem to have more firepower than the army. And so far, I’m staying a step ahead of them. And it’s all because of the nose.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a sense of smell so sensitive, I could out-smell any dog. I read up on it and there are other animals that can beat a dog, like rats and elephants. I’ve only ever tested myself against dogs though. That’s how I got my nickname. I can control the intensity, like the volume dial on a radio. It’s hard to explain how I do it. I mean, have you ever tried to describe to someone who can’t see how you focus on an object when you’re looking at it? There’s tension. Sometimes it happens by reflex. Like how you gasp when you’re startled. Sometimes it takes effort and I have to focus and concentrate. It took time, trial, and error for me to learn how to turn the dial up.
Once, when I was in middle school, the bell rang between periods and when I spilled out into the hallway with all the other kids, I caught a whiff of something that stopped me in my tracks. It was subtle. Familiar, but…rare. I had pretty much learned by then how to dial it up. I followed that scent until I found it. It led me to a group of girls. One of them was the source of that scent. She had a letter in her hands. She was beaming. She made no secret of why. The letter was from her older brother. He was a soldier who’d been deployed overseas and he’d written that he was already on his way home. That was the day I learned that elation smells something like bubble gum and wintergreen. Sweet. Refreshing.
That was also the day I confirmed to myself something I’d suspected for years. I could smell emotions and intentions. Someone who’s lying, for example, smells kind of lemony. My parents unwittingly helped me figure that one out. It’s a part of good parenting to lie to your kids. I mean how else can you give your kid a happy childhood unless you lie to her about all the awful crap people say and do, and how hard it is to tell good from evil in the real world? My parents did a decent job of it. But sometimes, when they answered my questions, they would start smelling like lemons, and I always knew something was up with that.
So there’s my weakness too. My sense can be confused by those who know about it. There aren’t many people who do. My best friend is one, and she takes full advantage of knowing the lemon trick. She always has lemons all around her place so I’d never know when she was lying. (Which is why I haven’t revealed that I have other ways to tell. Honest people like her have tells that only the most thickheaded person would miss.)
I guess I could have had a legitimate profession using my talents. Like maybe I could have been a food critic. Most of tasting is smelling, right? And I figure some of those food-tasters and critics have something like what I have. But they’ve got a more sensitive sense of taste instead of smell. Or maybe I could have worked as a law enforcement consultant, helping them smell out fake paintings in the white collar division. Or I could have worked out some kind of circus act, like how my best pal wanted to do. When we were little, she would charge kids to challenge me to find some kind of treat hidden in the house before that kid’s pet dog found it. I’d always win. But everyone thought it was some kind of trick. Like we had hidden cameras or something. Even my best pal thought so. She wouldn’t speak to me for a couple of days when she thought I was just refusing to tell her. I was so miserable I wracked my brain to find a way to prove to her that I was the real deal. I didn’t have to. She came up to me after school out of the blue, said she was sorry for being a jerk, and asked if I still wanted to be friends. She admitted she still thought I was pulling her leg, but that I was her best friend, so she’d put up with my antics. We were both ten. She ended up being the one who helped me figure out how to control my sense.
She was and is my real sister. I have a sister by blood, a brother too, but we’re not close. The only family I’ve ever been close to is my mom. I tried asking her once if she knew anything about my special talent. But she didn’t understand what I was getting at and I chickened out. Never brought it up to her again. There was one time when I think she finally put two and two together though. It was when Gramps, my Dad’s dad, got sick and passed. Right after I turned thirteen, Gramps and Gran came to visit. They lived out of state. They’d visit every few years. And in between, we went to them. This time, I smelled something coming off with Gramps. I figured at first that it was because he was getting older. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it smelled awful. Not the smell itself, but the way it made me feel. Worse than smelling vomit or sewage.
I asked my mom a few times if Gramps was okay. She mostly dismissed the question. Gramps was spry as ever. But she took it seriously enough to ask Gran, who said all was well. And aside from jokes about my being a bigger worry-wort than the mothers in the household, nothing more came of it, until Gramps was diagnosed with cancer six months later. My mom looked at me funny for a few days, as if she wanted to ask, but didn’t want to ask. The house was sour with the scent of lemons those days, with all the lying everyone did to keep from hurting.
So maybe it’s no wonder that I chose to make a living by putting my talents to frivolous and self-serving use. I knew how to choose stable clients, ones that would not kill me for “knowing too much,” ones that would not double-cross me at the last minute. I could smell the difference between the necessary deception—fakes names and the like—of a business such as mine and the deception of intentional betrayal.
Sometimes I even let clients cheat me, so they would underestimate me, or feel guilty and obligated toward me (it happens). Then there were those clients who saw through me…or almost. Mr. Magnus was one of those. I had to be careful not be obvious around him. He probably had me figured out already and was just keeping the knowledge close to his vest. That’s probably why he wanted me for the job.
Mr. Magnus was robbed of what he called a very precious herb. It seemed to defy the smell senses of his trained dogs and rats. He had used all his other means of tracking the item down. And still no joy.
He was trying to hide it, but I smelled the frantic musk of desperation in the air around him. I almost walked away when he said “name your price.” But then he got me back when he realized his mistake and took a different tack. He went back to all the methods that had failed. He told me it would be a challenge. He told me that he would owe me one. I had a solid reputation already. I didn’t need help with that. But a favor owed by Magnus was a tempting prize. And so was the challenge.
He gave me a paper packet that he said had contained some of the herb. It had a pleasant flowery scent. Not what I expected. There was something vibrant about it. I don’t mess around with drugs or weapons. Mr. Magnus was aware of that and respected it. I didn’t know him to be someone who messed around with drugs or weapons either. His jobs usually involved antiques. He insisted the herb was a medicine that he needed for someone dear to him who was sick with something that modern medicine could not cure or treat. I was to find out where the stuff was. I was not to enter the building to where I tracked the herb. I was just to find it and alert Magnus’s men.
It wasn’t just the challenge of it that drew me. I didn’t have so much pride that I couldn’t walk away from someone crying “chicken.” It was the scent. It reminded me of how it felt to smell more intensely for the first time. When I was very young, it only happened by reflex. The first time I was at a fun faire, I loved the smell of the popcorn and funnel cake and cotton candy, just like everyone else. But then my smell sense dialed up by itself and I could smell every single flavor, the vanilla and the sugar and the cinnamon and the butter. And then I smelled the crackling fresh scent of happiness and cheer from all the faire-goers. I smelled it from my mom. Even from my stupid brother and sister. Most good scents smell fresh in some way.
That’s how this smelled. It wasn’t a once-alive-but-now-dead smell like the herb I used to track down for my friends back in the days after high school. This was fresh and pulsing with life. Whatever it was, it was still living. Potted, I assumed, even though I smelled no soil along with it. It was strange. Sometimes the scent was strong and overwhelming. Sometimes, even with my sense dialed up, I could barely catch a whiff of it. It didn’t behave like normal scent, getting stronger as I got closer. The more elusive it was, the more caught up I got in the challenge. It occurred to me that maybe, if the item was a living plant, it might be reflexively releasing some substance, like a chemical countermeasure, to block its scent. Maybe I could try to sniff out any other smells that seemed to appear and intensify whenever the flowery herby smell of this plant weakened. Not much in life was truly odorless to a guy with a nose like mine. If there was a countermeasure, it probably had a scent of its own, subtle though it might be.
Mr. Magnus had said that whoever stole the herb would not move it quickly, for it required special care. He never said I was hunting down a living thing. But I thought of it like an orchid. Someone gave my mom an orchid once, for her birthday, her co-workers. She’s got a decently green thumb, but she couldn’t keep the thing alive for the life of her.
Whenever the countermeasure wore off, I would smell the herb’s fragrance. Magnus was right. Whoever had the herb was staying put with it for the most part. Maybe they were the ones who were responsible for the blocked scent. Maybe they were spraying the herb down with something. For two days, I hunted it, and it eluded me. Until I began to recognize the prickly whisper of scent from that substance, the countermeasure. It got stronger and stronger as the herb’s fragrance grew weaker and weaker.
I tracked that prickly scent to the same general location where I’d last smelled the herb. I sat in my car all night in a random spot, on a sort of stakeout. Only instead of watching for activity, I was smelling for it. I couldn’t maintain having my sense dialed up all night. So I’d check every fifteen minutes. And right around three in the morning, I took a deep whiff of the air around me and caught the flowery fragrance of my target.
I followed it to a three-story building in a minor warehouse district near a freeway. There were plenty of nasty odors in the place, petrol fumes, a nearby sewage dump, and mold from one of the neighboring buildings. I moved closer and closer, until I knew for certain that I could pinpoint the fragrance to that three-story building. It looked oddly enough like a little apartment home complex. Might have been built for whoever used to work in those warehouses, only one of which looked like it was being maintained. The rest were riddled with the typical clues of neglect, broken windows, rust, that kind of thing.
I took out my phone and made the call. Mr. Magnus’s men reminded me of my instructions to move away from the building and leave the rest to them. I hoped there wouldn’t be some kind of armed conflict over a plant, no matter how precious. So I hesitated for just half a second maybe, a blink of an eye. Not long, but long enough for me to hear the call. I glanced up at the building. It was dark inside. But the cry came again and this time, I saw something—someone—at the third-floor window. I gasped because it was just like those horror movies with the jump scares. I started backing away. I’d done my part. It was time to go. And that cry sounded creepy. I could have sworn it did. But it came again. A cry. A cry for help.
No wonder Magnus didn’t want me in the building. There was more going on than just a stolen plant. That cry, it sounded like a girl or a young woman. What did she have to do with the herb? Was this the loved one that Magnus mentioned who needed the medicine? Had someone else kidnapped her? Was someone using her against Magnus?
Mr. Magnus wasn’t the lord of a drug cartel. He wasn’t the head of a crime family. He was more businessman than criminal. I was jumping to conclusions. In about ten minutes, his men would be there to reclaim the herb for their boss. But what about the girl?
I didn’t want to be involved, but I couldn’t walk away if there was an innocent girl up there. I didn’t want to call the police yet either, in case it made things worse. There couldn’t be any guards in the place or they wouldn’t have let her call out like that, and they would have caught me. She wasn’t tied up. She was able to reach the window. So maybe she was locked in that room. Maybe I could just go up and free her and be on my merry way.
The front entrance wasn’t locked. The door wasn’t even shut. And sure enough, there were no guards. I clicked on my flashlight and made my way up to the third floor. I caught my breath. I was tempted to, but I didn’t want to ramp up my sense. I needed to focus on getting the girl out of the building. Even if it meant forfeiting my fees and possibly earning the ire of Magnus for disobeying his orders. The floors were hardwood. They creaked, of course, as I got closer and closer to the room where the girl was. Made me anxious. I opened the door carefully, hoping I wouldn’t get jumped and clawed by some vicious beast for trying to be a do-gooder.
I swept the flashlight around the room and saw her huddled just below the window. She was small and slim, so it might be easy to mistake her for a child, but her eyes marked her as a young woman. The room had been a living room. There was a dust-covered coffee table surrounded by a dingy water-stained sofa set.
I spoke softly.
“I’m Alan Brody,” I said. “But most folks call me Brody. What’s your name?”
She said nothing. I told her that I had been sent by Magnus to find her. I didn’t know his first name, or how he might be related to the young woman. I didn’t actually know that there was any relation. I asked her if she considered Magnus a friend. She didn’t respond. She just looked at me.
I couldn’t quite read her expression. She didn’t look like she was afraid, but I had another way of telling. I ramped up my sense and took a deep breath.
And I almost got knocked off my feet. You see, I had expectations and they were turned upside down. Blood is the strongest visceral smell on a human being. Sure there’s bad breath and foot odor and the like. But it’s all overwhelmed by blood. I could even smell all the different types. I figured maybe with my sense dialed up to maximum, my range shifted. Maybe those smells that were stronger in the normal range were weaker in a more sensitive range. Who knew? I wasn’t about to subject myself to any lab tests to try and find out. I had only my experience to help me sort it out. Blood. Sometimes I wondered if there were guys like me in the old days. If they smelled blood and were attracted to it, and if some of them were mad enough to attack people. Maybe that’s where some of the stories of vampires came from.
So I expected to smell her blood. But that’s not what I smelled. I smelled my target. I smelled flowers and herbs, vibrant and bright, as if they were basking in sunlight. And it was coming from her. It was flowing through her, coursing through her. That and not blood. It wasn’t something she had put on, like shampoo or lotion or perfume. It was her. A flower smelled like a flower because it was a flower. And that’s what she smelled like.
My eyes showed me a human being. But my nose…
Who was she? Alien? Angel? Demon? Something unearthly, supernatural, otherworldly was happening. I suddenly got a gut feeling that I should get out of there. And I should take her with me. I should take her away before Magnus’s men arrived. Magnus wasn’t lying about needing medicine.
I moved closer to her, slowly. She still didn’t seem frightened. Not that I could tell. My mojo wouldn’t work with this one. She rose and when she stood up, I saw the needle marks on the inside of her elbow. And just above her wrist. They were freshly healed.
I came to a realization. “You weren’t kidnapped from Magnus.” I looked into her gleaming green eyes. “You escaped.”
We ran for it. It was a chill night and she wasn’t wearing a jacket. She only had on some bedroom slippers, but she didn’t shiver at all. And for how lithe she was, she was damn strong. She helped me move that coffee table—heavy as a marble slab that thing—to block the door. We went down the fire escape, headed to one of the warehouses, and climbed through a broken basement window. We had to wait till Magnus’s men were in the building where my new friend had been hiding before we could sneak away or else they might see us. I’d parked a fair distance so I wouldn’t spook the thieves who I thought might be in the building.
I heard them arrive as we hunkered down. There were three cars at least from the sound and smell of it. I got her out of there. I got to my car. I started it and started driving and didn’t look back. But I had a sinking feeling in my gut. My clients were shady, but they weren’t really hardcore criminals, I always told myself. I should have known this day would come.
There were men at my place already, at my office. So I took her to my second office, the one that even my best friend didn’t know about.
She’s been trying to tell me something. But I don’t understand her language. Hell, if I didn’t know better, if I wasn’t looking into her eyes and seeing that she’s a thinking being, I’d hardly be able to tell that it was a language. She can do that thing like those monks can do, where each monk can sing more than one note at a time. Like she’s got more than one pair of vocal cords. Tell you the truth, that creeps me out just a little. But in for a penny, in for a pound. I’m the one who pulled her out of there. I have to see it through, whatever it is.
We’re at my auxiliary office. I thought I was paranoid for setting it up. We freshened up and rested a bit. I was trying to figure out our next move when she started speaking. It startled me. Didn’t sound like the human-like call I’d heard her use when I first found her.
I pull out my phone and a stylus. I start drawing, hoping she can understand this language, the language of art. I do a quick sketch of her, point to it, then point to her. She peers at the sketch and then peers at me. I’m holding my breath. I could never smell myself for some reason, but if I could, I’d smell the bitter chemical odor of fear and the strange overly sweet smell of nervousness. But then she points at the sketch and at herself. She holds out her hand and I hand her the phone and stylus. I swipe to a blank canvas. She starts to draw. I’m glancing around, trying to listen for footsteps. But as keen as my sense of smell is, my hearing and sight are average.
She’s taking a while with this drawing and she’s learned how to zoom in and out. I’ll have to stop her soon, so we can get a move on, though I don’t know where we’ll move to. But then she stops and she shows me what she’s drawn. I frown at first. It’s so zoomed in, all I see is lines and squiggles. But then I zoom out and further out. And I see what it is. My eyes widen because I know where to go now, assuming I can trust my new friend. It’s a map. There are dots that represent her and me and where we were just then. And I kid you not, there is an “X,” marking a spot. She points to the “X.” I get it. That’s where she was headed. Where she wants to go. I hope she’s got some help there. I save the map. I glance at her and nod, wondering if she understands the gesture.
I ramp it up, my smell, and I take a deep breath. I know how many guys there are. I smell gun oil. I smell cologne. Hair gel. Shoe polish. Tobacco. (I hope no one figures out that they can thwart me just by using odorless grooming products.)
I smell the hard concrete smell of their resolve. I know where they are. And I know where all the exits are. I smell where the air from outside is seeping in. So far, we’re staying a step ahead of them. It’s all because of the nose. And because of my weird new friend. It seems she can see in the dark. We’ve been guiding each other.
I get up. I help her up. I smell her too. Her fresh flowery smell.
“Let’s get a move on,” I say. And we move.
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel