Perfumer Vic Fowler is able to create bespoke scents that evoke immersive memories—memories that, for Vic’s clients, are worth killing for…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Base Notes by Lara Elena Donnelly, the exciting new thriller due out from Thomas & Mercer on February 1.
A lasting impression is worth killing for.
In New York City everybody needs a side hustle, and perfumer Vic Fowler has developed a delicate art that has proved to be very lucrative: creating bespoke scents that evoke immersive memories—memories that, for Vic’s clients, are worth killing for. But the city is expensive, and these days even artisanal murder doesn’t pay the bills. When Joseph Eisner, a former client with deep pockets, offers Vic an opportunity to expand the enterprise, the money is too good to turn down. But the job is too intricate—and too dangerous—to attempt alone.
Manipulating fellow struggling artists into acting as accomplices is easy. Like Vic, they too are on the verge of burnout and bankruptcy. But as relationships become more complicated, Vic’s careful plans start to unravel. Hounded by guilt and a tenacious private investigator, Vic grows increasingly desperate to complete Eisner’s commission. Is there anyone—friends, lovers, coconspirators—that Vic won’t sacrifice for art?
Notes de Tete: Whiskey, jasmine, Oakmoss
Notes de Coeur: Old Cigarettes and Stale Coffie
Notes de Fond: Mildew, Charcoal, Barbicide
For the aesthetically and culturally inclined, there are few places in the continental United States—or the full fifty, for that matter—as apt to satisfy as Lincoln Center. Unfortunately, for those of us aesthetically and culturally inclined people who are perpetually skint, Lincoln Center is a stretch, financially.
I always made it to the Met’s season premiere, where I bought a single drink to nurse and supplement via flask in the bathroom, breathing through my mouth and trying not to smell the Sauvage and White Linen, the Santa! 33 and Coco Mademoiselle.
It was all in order to be lnstagrammed, of course, and I sometimes managed to get my ticket comped. I knew enough things about enough people to engineer that, at least. I had learned my trade at the elbow of Jonathan Bright, a notorious extortionist and iconoclast of the perfume world; I understood the value of kompromat. And Bright House, now under my dubious stewardship, had just enough brand recognition that the Met Opera interns could find us to tag when they posted.
Besides, I was comparatively young, passingly attractive, and trendily androgynous. Just the right ornament for Last Night at the Met, and the social-media team knew it. Opera couldn’t cater to fossils anymore—the Met needed young blood who would inherit their grandparents’ money.
Good luck. For most of my generation, it would just go to student debt and cocktails. If anything came to me (an impossibility), I would dump it into a poorly managed career in edgy luxury items. You can’t make opera money on perfume that smells like cunts and gasoline.
At any rate, I didn’t usually make an appearance beyond the gala. Or, I hadn’t until recently. But Joseph Eisner had promised me a fortune, and now he wouldn’t take my calls. He did, however, like his chamber music.
It had been an acquired taste for me. In my distant undergraduate past, when circumstance sat me in front of an ensemble, I spent the first five minutes of each concert deciding which musician I would fuck if l had the chance, and the rest shifting minutely in my seat.
I still couldn’t stand Chanel. And while I had learned to appreciate—indeed, enjoy—chamber ensembles, orchestras, and on occasion even the opera, I retained my former habit as a dirty amusement to add some private savor to the proceedings. Tonight, it was the violist, weaving and bobbing his way through Dvofak’s Terzetto in C Major like a sinuous dancer.
I prefer the romantics—fewer hair-raising harmonies than modern fare, and certainly more engaging than funereal baroque. The intriguing arrangement of the terzetto kept me engaged, in that slightly detached and floating manner engendered by instrumental performance.
Moreover, the woman to my left, one row ahead, was wearing Salome by Papillon. The simple fact of anyone wearing such a scent in public pleased me. So few people dared wear anything at all these days, and when they did, it was inevitably staid: an inoffensive classic or antiseptic citrus-and-powder. But this perfume was one I might have worn myself. Jasmine, yes, but more indolic than your average floral. People sometimes say it smells like dirty panties.
As the trio wrapped up for intermission, I took a steadying breath of musk and straightened my lapels. The music was only a means to an end, after all.
Haunting the lobby of Alice Tully Hall like a well-dressed revenant, I watched ghostly reflections play across the glass. Headlights slid along 65th, slicing through the spectral intermission crowd.
My sex-addled spy, Eisner’s personal assistant, had assured me he would be at this evening’s performance. She was sweet, and apt to sing like a canary post-coitus. But she still wouldn’t put my calls through. In this instance, however, she had been more a help than a hindrance: Eisner appeared from the shadowed staircase leading up from the restrooms like wealthy Pluto rising from the underworld. I moved to intercept him.
“Mr. Eisner,” I said, extending my hand. His, when we shook, was wet. From washing; I would have noticed the scent of urine. Instead, I smelled my own concoction, and that added insult to injury. Iris, cotton, iron rust. Dark threads of sweat and blood underneath a greener, cleaner, sparkling surface. A liminal accord, not quite chypre, not quite fougere. I quashed fury and kept smiling.
“Vic,” he said. “What are you doing here?” He didn’t even have the grace to sound discomfited.
“I enjoy Dvorak as much as anybody.”
“Of course, of course.” His laugh was expansive, showing orthodontically straight teeth yellow with years of coffee and nicotine. Light bounced off his baldness.
A much younger man approached us, holding two plastic flutes of sparkling wine with heavily ringed fingers. “Jojo,” he said, lifting one drink and giving it a perilous waggle.
Eisner smiled indulgently. “Andrew, meet Vic.”
“Your son?” I asked, because I knew it would annoy him. I should have been polite, but I could hardly bear it. I’m not a polite person, when all is said and done, and less so when I’m pressed or peeved. At times, my displeasure can be downright violent.
Eisner’s smile was thin. “Andrew, Vic is a perfumer. Absolutely charming little enterprise called Bright House. Here, smell.”
He lifted his wrist to the young man’s face in a way no blood relation would dare outside a particular subgenre of pornography. Andrew wrinkled his surgically delicate nose, and my annoyance swiftly solidified into hatred.
“It’s so nice to see young people taking an interest in the arts,” I said.
“Vic,” purred Eisner. “You’re hardly out of high school.”
“I’m twenty-eight,” I said, icy. “And I run my own company.”
“Well, you don’t look it.” It was not a compliment. “How is your little cottage industry these days?”
He knew exactly, because he had seen the financials. When our initial off-the-books association led to the perfume he had the gall to wear tonight after breaking his promise, he had offered to act as an investor. He knew I only needed a little push—little by his lights—for a boost in production. With that, I could lock down a European distribution deal I hoped would put Bright House’s feet back under us. Then I could stop making spreadsheets and return to making perfume. But I couldn’t pull it off without his cash.
The money had not been forthcoming. It was either cruelty or caprice. What did Bright House matter to him? He could wear Frassai’, Frederic Malle, Fueguia. He could finance his own damn line of after shave and eau de toilette and never feel the squeeze. And yet he wouldn’t cut a check for me, no matter what I had done for him. Despite the specter of scent that hung around his throat and everything I had put into it. There was more in that bottle than iris and aldehydes, and we both knew it.
I wanted to wrap my hands around that wattle where he’d sprayed my scent and strangle him.
The lights rose and dimmed. We all went back to our seats. Throughout the final quartet, I smelled Salome working through its middle notes, decaying to the stink beneath. My mood grew fouler to match until the final chord rang out, and I slipped away under cover of applause.
My landlady had not lit the boiler yet, which meant that it was cold. Autumn had come to New York at last and was making its presence felt. I checked my mail—junk, junk, bills, and junk. A cold draft slithered through the mail slot and raised hairs on the back of my neck. The lights of Lincoln Center felt very far away.
My company might have been operating in the red, but I still paid myself enough to live alone. You might think this was an extravagance. Given the lucrative criminal sideline I pursued outside of office hours, I assure you it was not.
I had no projects steeping at the time, and no raw materials to pre pare. My basement studio felt empty, my prospects devoid of potential. I was not in a mood to accept this with grace. With more than necessary force, I flung my coat across the armchair and, from the bar cart, drew a dwindling bottle of Longrow I could ill afford to replace. It reeked like seaweed, smoke, and iodine. Before drinking I drew the smell so deep into my lungs they burned. I was in a mood to set most things on fire, including myself.
Fuck Eisner, anyway.
I was tired. I could finally admit it to myself, five years on from that first fateful day in the lab. As protege to the illustrious Jonathan Bright, founder of the eponymous House, I had been eager to surpass him. As his lover, I had fought for power along every axis of our relationship. And I had finally won it, albeit in an… unorthodox fashion. Now that I was—nominally—on top, it was a scramble just to stay in place.
While Bright House shone in the press for some time following Jonathan’s tragic disappearance, sales slacked off when our name slipped from the headlines. The company came to me after a little bit of cursory legal paper pushing; I was second-in-command and nobody else wanted it. Peers appreciated Jonathan’s craft but wouldn’t touch the business with a ten-foot pole. I didn’t do much to remedy the situation.
In truth, I was too ambitious out of the gate. A rookie mistake. I spent more money on R & D than I could spare and not enough on marketing, compliance, personnel. Our production of staples faltered—I was not interested in scents just anyone would wear. My flaw, like Jonathan’s, was an abiding passion to produce perfume that made people think. Or that bypassed the brain altogether and went straight to the gut and groin.
Unfortunately, sex and shit make most Americans uncomfortable, and few of them really enjoy introspection or intellectual exercise. Yourself excepted, of course, or we wouldn’t have gotten this far.
It was lucky, then, that Jonathan’s death—because I know he did not “disappear”—led to one of the most interesting craft discoveries of my career. And my most lucrative, ounce for ounce. Unfortunately it’s not something I can advertise. So while I very occasionally made—and still make—a comfortable sum committing or at least abetting an array of unsavory acts in the service of creating inimitable scents with certain arcane attributes, it was not enough to run a company. Besides, the IRS would ask too many questions.
Bright House was floundering. I had hoped we would do better in Europe, before Eisner crushed that dream. The last several years had been a slog. I was exhausted from trying to balance unbalanceable books and, when I stopped to consider it, quite bored. Perhaps even lonely. I missed having someone to snarl at who would snarl back—none of my employees dared, and I dared not snarl at my clients. I wanted a whetstone for my edge. I wanted to get laid, at least. And I wanted to pursue my art outside business or commissions.
All in all, a sorry state of affairs upon which I preferred not to dwell. The Scotch helped a little, but I had something stronger stored away. Several somethings.
In my refrigerator was a battered pink leather jewelry box with a tarnished clasp: a flea market find when I was first stumbling through the world of perfume and needed somewhere dark to keep my new obsession safe.
Then, I had stored samples in the tiny earring brackets in the top shelf. The bottom had been given over to the few full-size bottles worth my money and my time. The box had sat on my dresser in London during my study-abroad semester. It had steadily filled after I dropped out of college to pursue my certificate in perfumery arts. And it came with me to New York when I landed a product dev assistant job at the only place I had bothered to apply: Bright House.
I had gotten the job on the strength of several sterling faculty references. The references in turn I had wrangled by means of flirtation, blackmail, natural precocity, and filthy sexual favors, though not necessarily related to one another or in any particular order. I sometimes wonder if it was whispered word of mouth, and not the written letters, that really recommended me to Bright.
Now that I was more serious about my craft, the jewelry box was crammed full of sample-size atomizers. I kept them as close to inert as I could, at morgue temperature in my mini fridge. Beneath them, on the shelves proper: larger glass bottles labeled with letters and numbers. Absolutes, left over from previous projects.
I set the jewelry box on the small square of counter space and popped it open. Thoughtfully touching the top of each small atomizer, I finally selected one. Applying expert pressure to the atomizer’s top, I sent a cool mist across my throat.
A sudden suffusion of coffee, leather, cigarettes, brine.
The AeroPress drip-drying by the sink was ruthlessly clean, as was everything in Jonathan’s apartment, but the plastic had been impregnated with arabica and its scent could not be scrubbed away. Somebody in the building was smoking, and the HVAC system carried it to us. Leather for his shoes and mine, set side by side, flush with the wall. His were much nicer, by a margin of several thousand dollars. The brine was for our sweat. Cepes might have been more appropriate, or musk, but I had needed something clean to balance the unwashed base of this perfume. My Jonathan perfumes were all like that: elegant at the top, voluptuous in the middle, cruel and filthy at their core.
It was warm, in the memory. Hot, even. I had mostly chosen it for the temperature, the play of sun on my bare skin. There were other lovers or memories I might have revisited. I hadn’t been a saint outside of my commissions, when I still had time to pursue independent projects. As an artisan and a professional, I needed to experiment in order to refine my technique. As an aesthete, I sometimes met moments, scents, and personalities I wanted to preserve at the expense of the other people who had experienced or produced them.
But besides the sunlight, I needed a reminder of where I’d come from and how far I’d clawed. I wanted to remember my ruthless mentor, and my own ruthlessness in getting ahead of him. I wanted to feel, for just a moment, that there was someone in the world I understood.
When I say “revisit,” I do not mean “remember.” I mean I was there, sweat prickling on my naked skin. I could see Jonathan at the counter, drinking his coffee, checking his phone. He needed a shave. The raw skin across my jaw was marked by the bristles on his.
I did not move, because I hadn’t then. I lay across his bed, on his memory foam mattress and creamy Swiss-made sheets, chin resting on my bare arms. Looking down from the loft, I traced the patterns of mar ble in the countertop, the whorls of coarse, dark hair against his scalp. I took a deep breath of all the faint and mingled smells of the moment, let it out in a sigh.
Excerpted from Base Notes by Lara Elena Donnelly with permission from the publisher, Thomas & Mercer. Copyright © 2022 by Lara Elena Donnelly. All rights reserved.