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Chapter XX

By the time ‘Mr. and Mrs. Duncan’ arrived at the party, the cars were parked several deep in the nearby lawn. Beside them was D, in the guise of Carol Feathers, an old friend of Mrs. Duncan. She adjusted and expanded upon this story as the night wore on, each party guest receiving a slightly tailored version of her story.

Witnessing one of these conversations, listening to how D artfully fused truth and subterfuge to form a wedge into the politicking around her, he found himself impressed. It was impossible to know how much of this was her unusual talent and how much just social intelligence, but it didn’t seem to matter. He realized D was the kind of agent the SSF had always tried to cultivate but never fielded.

As for Shield, he was ensnared in conversation within a minutes of his arrival. Apparently the knowledge Mr. Duncan was a pharmaceutical baron made the rounds quickly. A Luther Von Krossen approached him and asked what sorts of medicine his company produced. Luther was a lanky six five, with close-cropped, nearly translucent hair that showed pink at the crown of his head and around the temples. His eyes were blue and incredibly tired, as though he had come to the soiree after several days of intensive lab work. Actually, considering Gunther’s reputation, that was not altogether improbable.

“What’s your specialty,” the man asked Marcus.

Shield decided to string the man along and see what he knew. “Multi-dose vaccines mostly…rabies, tetanus and a few other exotics.”

“Very noble work.”

“Pays the bills. Yourself?”

“Thulewaite Biological Institute,” Luther said mock pompously. “Basically a vanity project for Gunther to shore up this duck barrel’s reputation, but it’s like you said…”

“Pays the bills,” Shield took a sip from his French 75, adjusting his grip to favor a still-mending ring finger. His fitted gloves would invite questions, so he endured the discomfort. “Still, if you don’t mind satisfying my professional curiosity, what does Gunther have you doing for his vanity project?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to sound flippant. There are some truly necessary and valuable parts of the Institute. Actually I’m lucky enough to be working on that more prestigious side of the ledger.”

Shield nodded for the man to continue.

“Antidotes,” said Luther, “That’s the Institute’s bread and butter. I work at developing new serums, antivenins and anti-histamines.”

“Sort of a strange topic of research for a company tied into a game preserve.”

“Yeah,” Luther laughed, “I guess I never thought of it like that. Mr. Thulewaite has a special horror of honest, god-fearing Texans envenomed by our fair state's pernicious wildlife.”

“Maybe he stepped on a scorpion when he was five?”

“Maybe,” Luther stared into his drink. “It’s not for me to ask, I just work at finding new antivenins.”

Shield paused, hold a knuckle to his chin thoughtfully.

“You looked puzzled,” said Luther.

“Just unsure about one thing,” said Shield. “What sorts of new antivenins could you be producing? Are there that many new snakes being discovered every year?”

The scientist produced a strained laugh, “No, not that many I suppose. But we do get them.”

“Snakes, you mean,” pressed Shield. “Snakes which are new to science?”

“Yes, new enough,” Luther glanced nervously to either side of him. “Some of your tropical snakes can be quite deadly and we’ve had trouble with one species in particular. It’s taking up a lot of our time.”

“The Burmese Tiger Snakes?” Shield suggested.

The look Luther gave him was almost pure panic and for a second the agent was concerned he may have blown the whole thing. But no worries, the look Luther gave him was sly, almost eager to divulge more.

“Yes, the snakes have two entirely different types of venom within their poison glands. It’s been extremely difficult to develop a safe antidote for both toxins.

“I’m to understand then that there’s a supply of Burmese Tiger Snakes nearby?”

“Right here on the ranch actually. The snakes are,” Luther paused, “picky in their eating habits. Their prey has to be specially bred and raised, and their handlers have to be carefully trained and selected. Given all of the dangerous animals already on this ranch, Mr. Thulewaite most likely figured a few more wouldn’t hurt.”

Shield chewed his lip before taking a gamble. “These snakes, I’d love to see one of them…”

“You can see the whole colony if you prefer,” said Luther. “You bring the gasoline and I’ll bring the match.”

“You’ve got something against snakes?”

“Just these ones.”

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