Welcome to Dib!
Dib is an Earthlike planet, only slightly smaller, with shorter days and longer years, in orbit around twin suns.
On the continent of Geo, in the city of Velon in the nation of Inimata, a man lies dead in his study.
The Murdered Monk
In life, Professor Orno Linus was a world-class scholar: an astrophysicist, a dead-language linguist, and an expert in (and apparent true believer of) the religious concept of the Cull, i.e., the end of the world. Widely respected, nothing about Linus's expertise suggests somebody might want him dead.
Professor Linus is also Brother Linus, a high-ranking member of an ancient, powerful religious organization known as the House. This makes his murder much more complicated, but no more explicable, because murder on House grounds just doesn't happen. Not even when one of the last things the victim did was steal something important from the House vault.
Finally, Orno is also the younger brother of Calcut Linus, one of the most powerful and criminally dangerous people on the planet. Killing any Linus means incurring the wrath of a man for whom laws very rarely apply.
In short, Professor Orno Linus is a highly unlikely murder victim.
And yet, somebody killed him.
The Cursed Detective
Detective Makk Stidgeon already knows he's unlucky. He's a cholem: an outcast. A bad-luck charm. He was born this way, and has the brand on his wrist to prove it.
But in terms of bad luck, the gods have really gone overboard by sticking him with the Linus case.
Between a House leadership that seems more interested in retrieving their stolen artifact than in solving the murder of one of their own, the demands of the murderous Calcut Linus, a new partner who seems to know more than she's telling, and an omnipresent news media constantly looking for an angle on the biggest story of the year, Makk barely has time to just follow the clues.
And that's before an impossible video surfaces that purports to reveal the killer's identity. What makes it impossible? The person in the video couldn't have possibly done it.
To get to the bottom of the Orno's murder, Makk will have to navigate between the House and the Linus family, find the source of the video, and figure out what's missing from the House vault. Even if he can pull all that off, he may discover he's not at the end of a mystery at all, but at the beginning of a much larger one.
Tandemstar: The Outcast Cycle.The journey begins here.
"The world building here is fantastic. There are so many things that are simply mentioned in the way you would if you were familiar with them, though of course they are all new to the reader. It makes me want to know more about this world."– Amazon Review
"…In comparison, other mysteries seem almost lazy. I mean, here I got a great who-done-it AND a piece of speculative fiction all in one surprising package. It was a really engaging book & I recommend it to anyone who likes mysteries and doesn't mind being surprised."– Amazon Review
The clanging on the radiator pipe woke up Makk about ten minutes before his seventeen o'clock alarm was set to go off.
He didn't know what he was hearing at first, nor was it initially clear where he was or what time it was. He'd worked an overnight shift, so bedtime was ten o'clock…or, it should have been. One didn't just go directly from a shift to bed without a drink first. There had to be a little separation between the job and the leisure, and a shot of Dorabonian rye was the quickest way to create that separation.
Also, one didn't have just one drink. One had two, or three, or six, especially when one was an idiot.
Then one went to bed.
CLANG CLANG CLANG
The pipe rang in time with the throbbing behind his eyes, and so he wondered if the problem was that something metallic had come loose inside of his skull. Failing that—and now he was waking up enough to consider things a tiny bit more rationally—it could have been that someone was doing work outside the window.
Makk's apartment was in the Decane Quarter; rather, what it said on the maps. Only tourists (and, presumably, map-makers) called it that, and only if they were confused. It was named after the politician Andon Decane who—some two hundred years prior—had been special envoy to Kindon, among other things. That posting was nearly the height of irony, as Andon Decane actively despised the Kindonese, and made no effort to hide this fact. What was the height of irony was that the quarter with Decane's name on it was now known as Kindontown by nearly everyone.
Makk wasn't Kindonese, but the rent was cheap, and he spoke fluent Taku, so he got along okay.
CLANG CLANG CLANG
It wasn't work outside; it was Binchagag, whacking the basement radiator pipe with a stick.
"All right, I'm coming," he shouted. Binchagag couldn't hear him, but Makk felt better for having said it anyway. Then he got out of bed, picked up the nearest boot, walked over to the radiator, and hit it a couple of times. Depending on the urgency of the matter, that should buy him at least enough time to clean up and drag himself downstairs. And maybe even get in a shower.
The apartment was indeed cheap, in part because of its location, and in part because it was really small. Makk's bed was his couch, and his bedroom was his living room, and his living room was his kitchen. Thankfully, none of them was also his bathroom, as it was separate.
The walls were thin, the windows let in all kinds of draft, and the radiator his landlord was so very fond of using as a means of communication only occasionally produced heat. But nobody came to Kindontown unless they were Kindonese, or they were lost, which made it was a good place to live if wanting to be largely left alone. Generally speaking, Makk always wanted to be left alone.
CLANG CLANG CLANG
"It's an emergency, then," he muttered. Someone must have been having quite a run of luck in the basement.
He dropped the boot and headed for the bathroom, spotting the empty bottle of rye on the kitchen counter as he went.
"Okay, maybe I had seven or eight drinks," he said. Oddly, this made him feel better about the mass suicide of brain cells that was making it hard to see straight. At least how he felt now had been earned.
* * *
He skipped the shower, and the shave. There was a real chance that Binchagag was about to take up the rest of Makk's free time, so a few minutes to make himself presentable was probably warranted, except his shift began at 18:30. Nobody cared how you looked on the overnight shift.
Velon was quite literally the city that didn't sleep. Most of the businesses operated in some form—even if that form was skeletal—all twenty hours of the day, all seven days of the week, all 529 days of the year. Makk assumed this was true for the entirety of Inimata, and possibly true in other countries as well. (It was definitely the case when he was in the military, but the military was run by crazy people who were probably looking for an hour twenty-one and twenty-two to take advantage of.) At some point, everyone just agreed that lowered standards in personal grooming was their reward for what they called working the over.
In short, Makk didn't need to shave, and even though the shower would have been nice, it was also unnecessary, so he skipped it too. He did find a clean shirt, and a mostly-clean pair of pants. Then he threw on his jacket, grabbed what he needed for work, and headed out.
Hopefully, somebody downstairs had coffee brewing.
The staircase leading to the apartment was external, and perilously steep, which was a common characteristic in this part of the city. The buildings in Kindontown looked to have been assembled haphazardly by a child god with a poor understanding of the basics of structural integrity. They leaned, and loomed, and most appeared top-heavy. (A lot of them were, thanks to probably-illegal apartments built out of plywood on top of roofs. Makk lived in one of them.) From the street level, it felt like the buildings were staring down from directly overhead, as if ripped from the nightmares of a worried agrarian on an unpleasant business trip.
In Makk's version of this nightmare, the buildings were gaming tiles, stacked on their narrows and awaiting that child god to come along and tap the building at the end, sending them crashing down one by one.
He took a minute on the landing outside of his front door, in order to take in the city. Even at night—and the Dancers had set at least a couple of hours earlier—and even in this backchannel part of town, Velon was entirely too busy to cope with, absent a pause to recalibrate. Makk had spent the early part of his life in a uniform, running drop ships and guarding borders, but none of that elevated his pulse rate as much as just walking out his own front door on a busy evening in downtown Velon.
A merchant bazaar was going on across the street, spilling people off the curb and into traffic, which could have been a problem if any of the ground traffic was moving, which it wasn't. Above the ground traffic, every couple of minutes, an aero-car drove by, blasting hot, steamy air from its rear exhaust fans and raising the ambient temperature of all the atmosphere on the block by a couple of degrees. Or so it seemed.
Every crevice of city not taken up by a person or a car was occupied by an advertisement for something, or a streetlight. It was, thankfully, a cloudy night—it had been raining off and on for the past two days—or the sky itself would have been taken up by an advertisement as well, as Lys was scheduled to appear overhead in another hour.
Makk loved everything about the city, when he was on the ground. Up a level, and looking down with the same trepidation as a kid who's about to learn how to swim in a rapidly-flowing river, he couldn't believe anyone allowed themselves to live like this.
He closed his eyes, waited for a little dizziness from what was probably incipient vertigo to pass, and then headed down to the basement, to see what Binchagag wanted.
* * *
The ground floor was taken up by a restaurant called Lucky Twins, which specialized in mediocre but exotic variations of Kindonese food. When Makk felt especially adventurous—or if he was just too tired to walk any farther—he'd get food from the place, if only to entertain himself with a game of guess what part of what animal this thing came from? This was sometimes pretty easy, because certain body parts came out of the other side of food preparation looking a lot like they did when going into it, and then it became a game of I dare you to eat this.
He stopped at a bar halfway between the front door and the back staircase and caught the eye of Lina, the probably-underage girl currently tending bar.
"Coffee?" he asked, in Taku.
"You look like you died six hours ago," she said. "Coffee's old."
"Is it hot and more or less black?"
"More or less."
She poured a cup, then pushed a bowl of salted chicken skin rinds in front of him, and provided a shot of grain wine as accompaniment.
"Hangover cure," she said. "Finish it all, vomit. All better."
"No time to vomit," he said, downing half of the coffee. It was too hot and too old, scalding the back of his throat and traumatizing his taste buds. He moved on to the chicken rinds, which tasted great by comparison.
"There's a bottle of pinks under the cash box," he said. "Give me three of those."
"My way works better," she said. "And those are not for customers."
"I'm not a customer."
"No, you're a pain in my ass, Cholem," she said. Lina punctuated the name she used for Makk by tapping her chest with two extended fingers. It was meant to ward off evil, but in this case, she was doing it to guard herself against general misfortune. It came from one of Kindon's backwater belief systems, but Makk didn't know which one. Lina probably didn't either.
She pulled the bottle out and extracted three pills for him. Then the pipe behind the bar made the clanging noise.
"Sounds urgent," Lina said. "Better hurry."
Makk took the pills, downed the grain wine, and got to his feet. His stomach commented on his meal choices, but didn't threaten to protest any more stridently, so he figured he was good enough to at least make it downstairs.
Past the bar and at the back of the restaurant, there was a down-staircase with an "employees only" barrier in front of it. Makk pushed the barrier aside, and headed down. Nobody bothered to stop him, which may have been because they all knew him, but he was pretty sure anybody walking to the back and heading down those stairs would have been able to do so unimpeded; knowing it was okay to use the stairs was permission enough to use them.
There was a big guy at the bottom of the staircase, in front of a steel door with a square peekaboo window.
"Evening, Tohai," Makk greeted, in the common tongue—Endish—rather than in Taku.
"Makk," he said. Tohai was not an erudite man in either tongue.
"Bincha hit me up," Makk said. "Someone having a run?"
"I think trouble."
Tohai shrugged, and pushed open the door.
The basement of the Lucky Twins was a different kind of overwhelming. For starters, there was the smoke from the bacco sticks, which was thick enough to obscure the back half of the room. Makk was never a smoker, but he'd spent enough time around smokers that it hardly mattered. (And he did take a pipe or a stick from time to time, just not habitually.) Everyone in the basement smoked, non-stop, and the ventilation was crap. There were ceiling fans, and half-windows near the top of the outside walls that tilted open, but the air pressure between the inside and the outside was usually equilibrated, so the smoke didn't do much but circle around the room in whorls and waves.
There were fifteen tables in the center of the floor, and a bar along the right side, directly under the restaurant bar and the radiator in Makk's apartment. It was early, so the tables weren't filled, and only a couple of people were standing at the bar. One of those people was Binchagag. Another was a tall, blonde woman who didn't belong there. She and Bincha appeared to be in an argument. Given all of Bincha's gesticulation, it looked like he was losing that argument.
Binchagag pulled Makk into the situation before Makk had even made it all the way to the bar.
"Ah! There, you…you explain it to her," Binchagag said to Makk. "She is accusing us of crimes."
"What kinda crimes?" Makk asked. "I've got my own list, maybe we can compare."
"This is not joking," Bincha said. He was flustered, and when he was flustered, his command of the common tongue tended to break down.
Binchagag switched to Taku.
"Your kind, your problem," he said.
Makk took a closer look at the woman, to work out exactly what Bincha meant by that. She was tall, and well-dressed in a blue pants suit with a white blouse. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a neat braid, revealing a perfectly round face with high cheekbones and blue eyes. Makk, in contrast, was wearing yesterday's clothes (except for the shirt), his hair was standing in three directions, and he needed a shave. He was also shorter and rounder than she was.
They didn't look like they were the same kind of anything. They didn't even look like the same species.
"Hello," the woman said, with a half-smile. She was looking him over, at the same time he was looking her over. Presumably, she was unimpressed.
"Hi," he said, stepping up to the bar. "What can I do for you?"
"Well, that little fellow thinks you can convince me that what I'm looking at right now is something other than an illegal gambling parlor," she said. "Do you think you're up to that?"
"I can give it a shot, sure, but only if you call Bincha here a little fellow one more time, because that's damned funny."
Binchagag—who was only short compared to the average Inimatan, but about right for someone from Kindon—swore in Taku and stormed off. She watched him go, and then watched Makk slide onto a bar stool.
"I'm waiting," the woman said.
She was more attractive up close, which was almost never the case with anybody.
"Do you want a drink?" he asked, gesturing to the bar seat beside his, and waving to the tender. The three pinks and belly full of coffee were kicking in; there was a chance he could muster up a small modicum of charm, provided his breath wasn't too bad.
"I'll have a water," she said, accepting the seat. "Is the water here clean?"
"I'd stick with the spirits if I were you. What's your demon?"
"They won't carry it," she said, "but I'll take whatever's amber and comes out of that nozzle over there."
"Deterrent Ridge Draft?" the bartender said. Her name was Phaiet, and Makk knew her entire life's story, including how she ended up with a synthetic leg, tending bar in an illegal gambling establishment in a basement in Kindontown.
It was possible Makk spent too much time beneath the Lucky Twins.
"Make it two," Makk said. He was on shift shortly, but again, people didn't care so much when you were working the over, and besides, beer barely counted as alcohol. His stomach reminded him about the recently-consumed chicken skin rinds and grain wine, and his hangover notified him that any more alcohol at this point would be a poor choice. He ignored both.
"So I'm guessing," Makk said, to the blonde, "based on how much you've rattled my landlord, that you have some kind of authority."
"Is that what you are to him?" she asked. "His tenant?"
"Yeah, I live upstairs."
Strictly speaking, this was an accurate description of his relationship with Binchagag; the bulk of it was transactional in nature. However, Bincha was known to let Makk borrow one of his ground cars in a pinch, and also lent Makk the use of his hunting cabin once or twice a year.
"And he calls you down whenever there's trouble?" she asked.
"Kinda. Are you trouble?"
She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a badge. This was a thin piece of metal and synthetic glass that also worked as a camera and a voicer. It was glowing green and yellow, which meant that she was on duty.
"Ohh, you're a cop," Makk said. "Maybe the water was a better idea."
"You told me the water was suspect, and I'd barely call D.R. Draft alcoholic," she said. "I'll live."
"Can I see that?"
She handed over the badge. He studied it for about twice as long as he actually needed to, and then handed it back.
"Detective Viselle Daska," he said. "Not just a cop; a detective."
"Daska. What is that? It sounds Unakian."
"My father's from Dunn," she confirmed. "And I think you're stalling. Are you going to explain what's going on in this room better than he did, or do you want to go through my whole family tree first?"
"We can do both; I've got time."
Phaiet served up the beer. Detective Daska took a sip, cringed gently, and took another.
"Well, I don't have time," she said. "I'm a few minutes away from ordering backup and arresting everyone."
"Depends. What else do you do for Mr. Binchagag?"
"It's just Binchagag," he said. "That's his whole name. This is really all I do for him."
"And what is that again? Run down to the basement to charm policemen out of busting an illegal operation?"
"I wasn't even trying to be charming yet," he said. Although he was.
Generally speaking, Makk didn't like other people. But, he liked women just fine. This was not to say that women were not also people, just that he was capable of overriding his instinct to avoid people under certain circumstances. He also knew his relationship with Detective Viselle Daska was shortly going to change into something that prohibited flirting and the general application of charm; he was going to have to get the most out of it while he could.
"I was exaggerating," she said.
"This isn't usually what I do for Bincha, no. I'm more like a professional bad luck charm."
He rolled up his right sleeve and held out the back of his wrist so she could see the mark. It was a small black symbol that looked like a 3 and a 4 having intercourse.
For the first time since they began talking, Viselle Daska looked surprised.
"You're a Cholem," she said.
"That's me; professionally unlucky."
"Put that away," hissed Phaiet, from across half the bar, "before you clear out the place."
Makk pulled his sleeve back down to cover up the mark.
"I don't think I've ever seen one of those," Daska admitted.
"The brand? It's more common than you probably think; most times it's just not flashed like that. Still, better than drowning, huh?"
He'd met at least two dozen people with the same mark; most of them only showed him after they'd seen his, and otherwise kept it hidden.
"Oh, I understand now," Detective Daska said. "When your friend Mr. Binchagag is dealing with a hot table, you sit down and show off your little tattoo."
"It's just Binchagag, but yeah. It empties the table, and sometimes the whole place. Not that there's any gambling going on in this establishment."
"Of course not. What's your name, anyway?"
"Do you also not have a last name?"
"Oh, I do."
"Is this your full-time job, Makk? Local Cholem?"
She said the last word loud enough to cause a couple of the people in the room to turn around in a mild panic. One of them started closing out his bet.
Even the word was bad luck. There was a whole set of rituals observed by the more superstitious, when the word was said aloud, regardless of whether or not an actual Cholem was nearby. Makk had seen people spin around, spit on their hands, and so on. It was the kind of silliness he'd find amusing if he wasn't one.
Detective Daska noticed the same thing he had.
"Maybe I don't need to call in any backup," she said. "I can just say that word loudly."
"I think after you've said it three times you should avoid traffic the rest of the day," he said. "But no, it's not my full-time job. It's just what I do if I happen to be around and Bincha needs a bailout. In exchange, he gives me a discount on the rent; it's nice. Maybe the only benefit I'll ever get out of being a Cholem, but I'll take it."