*The following is the opening from the short story, Paganini’s Strings*
The neon lights of kanji rippled in the puddle. December rain pounded the rusty drain pipes and trash loaded wall-to-wall in the night-cloaked alley. It reeked of fried and refried takeaways, a stench that gave my stomach a guilty rumble.
I never eat before a gig. It wouldn’t stay down otherwise. Instead, I sipped on a flask of coffee (crammed with sugar, of course), waiting. Despite the rain, I was in high spirits. This gig would pay handsomely, and by my standards, was fairly routine. Regardless, I’d had my guitar restrung; no crack-ups this time. Just killer riffs.
I shuffled the guitar and portable amp bagged on my back. Paganini, I called it. In this line of work you had to call your weapon of choice by a name.
There came a shaft of musty light, gleaming a door shape against the wall. I threw my flask onto the trash heap and ducked behind a skip. Flies bounded on and off my face and hands, but I had to concede it, had to remain still. I pulled my trenchcoat tighter around me, and peered down the alley.
Voices bawling in speedy oriental met my ears through the rain. Then the sharp noise of crockery smashing. Shadows danced across the light like a puppet show. At last he staggered out, throwing his lithe hands out against the wall before he hit it. His hair blazed with the colour and manner of a fire, and his furious eyes did similar as he looked back. Cat-like he leapt for the door – the light closed away with a slam, leaving his fists pounding against the surface, the steel echoing through the alley. It shook the flies off me, at least.
“Yeah? Well to hell with you!” he roared, “I don’t need this job!”
He spat at the doorstep. Instantly I sized him up; tall, perhaps underweight, full of cocksure bravado. So, this was Ken. Judging by the get-up he was either an über-fashion victim or a hardcore cyberpunk. He even wore sweatbands weaved of microchips and wires. I watched him light up and suck luxuriously on a kretek. My lip curled; he was certainly underage. So, he was a tearaway and a pretentious brat too? This was just getting better and better. I’d played to tougher people for less.
Finally, Ken moved down the alley, hunched and brooding, disappearing through a plume of greasy steam. I leapt up, and shook myself down vigorously. I’d not have my new trenchcoat ruined. Stepping lightly, I emerged through the steam onto the main street.
The towers of the Urbania gleamed against the night, each screaming for attention with dazzling arrays of fluorescent lights bedecking the sporadic angles of the walls. The thumping basslines of various generic trance tunes escaped from the nightclubs and melded into one equally generic mesh of noise. Late-night shoppers and revellers bustled from doorway to awning, ducking against the rain. Between the garish circus were alleyways loaded with shifting shadows and smoke; gateways into the underworld beneath the lights.
I quickly caught sight of Ken, owing to his hair. He strode tall against the rain, shouldering passers-by. I followed, keeping a good distance behind. A row of shop assistants standing under umbrellas proudly declared their latest offers to me:
“Extremely rare Oscibird feathers! When they’re gone they’re gone!”
“Happy hour for the whole night! Get those drinks in!”
“Hey you! We’ve got girls all the way from the Ayrn Islands waiting just for you!”
I’d admit that one of them tickled my fancy. Which one it was…well, that’s for you to decide.
In my moment’s distraction, I lost sight of Ken. I looked up just in time to see him slip down a side street. Odd; either he really was naïve or he was asking for trouble. I shrugged, and slipped away from the crowds after him.
It wasn’t an alley, but it wasn’t a real street either. The cobbled path wound downwards, the stones shining under the weak glow of gas lamps. Tiny stores squeezed for room on either side, their windows so murky and crowded with oddities that it was impossible to tell whether they were open or closed.
Just when I’d thought I’d lost my quarry, with an all manner of doors to slip through, I heard the scuffing of shoes on the cobble stones up ahead. I plunged own the path, briskly, silently.
Soon, Ken came back into view, walking as casually as I was careful. Didn’t he have any idea what territory he was walking into? Not that I cared for him: soon I’d play for him and it would all be over. But I did care for myself. Immensely. I’d have to spring onto him soon, get it over with and get out while I could. Maybe that was why my employee was paying so much; idiots were dangerous creatures.
The street came to an end, and he stopped before a plain door. I slipped into the shadows once again, as his head cocked around. Had he seen me? Heard me?
He ran his hand through his hair, and lifted the lid on a battered dustbin. He unstuck a key taped to the underside of the lid and inserted it into the door. It unlocked with a loud clunk that defied it’s size. With another look over his shoulder, he replaced the key and slipped through the door, locking it shut from the inside with another clunk.
I waited for a while, aware that this left me in an awkward situation. On the one hand, I had him cornered. On the other hand, he had me cornered too, if he was at all aware of it; I could only enter through this door. He could easily ambush me and ruin the whole gig.
Still, I had no choice. It was too much money. I unpacked my equipment, in case I needed to make a quick play.
Paganini slung over my shoulder and amp in my hand, I stepped inside, tensed, ready to swing into action. It was inky black inside. The air had an electric tang, as though a storm were rolling in. It felt like a big room, perhaps huge. The old nerves started setting in again, and my empty stomach clenched. The tips of my fingers perspired.
Where was Ken? For all the darkness told, he could be a fair distance away, or standing right next to me. But if he’d seen me, he’d have made his move by now, surely. Perhaps I’d entered undetected, after all.
I stepped forward, slowly, hands out, expecting to bump into something. Nothing. The room kept going. What was this place? Such expansive rooms didn’t exist in the cramped heart of the Urbania. Something didn’t feel right. My back bristled. I turned – and saw him, standing in a pool of light, looking right at me with cold eyes.
In one smooth, heavily rehearsed motion, I dropped the amp to the floor, swung Paganini into my hands, and jacked the guitar in. The sweet sound of feedback shivered up my arms. I sucked it in through my teeth, feeding on it. I pressed the tips of my fingers against the strings, feeling the coarse gut strings rub against my toughened skin. The familiar shape of Paganini pressed against my thigh and midriff. All fear had evaporated. I felt alive. Ken still slumped in casual nonchalance. He sneered at the sight of me.
“Herrick Stringslayer,” he said in a drawl, “My, what a surprise.”