Three-Piece String Assassination

Chrysanthemum Montgomery: the baddest bitch on any side of any river. Period. Full stop. She lounged into the bar, a goon on each arm. She dripped danger, oozed glamour, and fixed every eye upon her without the need for any kind of magic.

For a moment, the song flew from my mind, and there was nothing but Chrysanthemum, spotlighted in the doorway, a crime queen entering stage left.

Come on, Betty, keep your cool. You’re just the music, hired strings. You ain’t got no business knowin’ who that lady is, just play your Baby, croon your tune. Lull the mood. Don’t let nobody know you’re here to kill Montgomery.

I closed my eyes, finished the song with what I hoped was the same gusto I started it. The applause was more than we’d earned all night, and I took a bow with my beautiful upright bass – my Baby – swirling at my side, so she too could get her due.

It was Angelica’s turn to belt out a ballad. She shot me a wink, smiling as we shuffled into place, me and my Baby at the back, holding down the beat, she in front, boom-chucking on her guitar while sweet alto melody slipped ‘cross her lips into the inebriated air.

Carla had closed her eyes, finally finding some semblance of unity as she coaxed fills out of her fiddle. I eased into the background, just where I liked to hang, letting my eyes rove over the audience, who gradually grew more attentive as the night drifted on. I tried not to stare at Chrysanthemum any longer than any of the rest, but it was mighty hard not to stare. Not just cuz she was the mark, our golden goose, our ticket to a cush gig with the Agency (or a walk in the river with concrete shoes, if we failed). She was gorgeous.

I waited for a clear shot from the stage to the booth where she sat, martini held in an effortlessly elegant hand. But the air between my eyes and hers blurred frequently with patrons passing to the bar, by waitstaff selling their service for the hope of plump tips, by bickering couples cutting date night short. Our set ended with Chrysanthemum Montgomery still very much alive and applauding us with a jangle of bangles and a glint of rings.

“We’ll be back in fifteen minutes with another set,” Carla said into the mic while Angelica wiped down her strings. “Feel free to come up and say howdy. We’ll be at our merch table.” She pointed to the little folding card table we’d outfitted with a thrift-store suitcase to display our wares: CDs, T-shirts, bumper stickers, ball caps.

I spun and dipped my Baby onto her side and slid the footpeg in so no one could trip over it. No god could save the soul who broke my Baby’s bridge. I was gulping down water when one of Chrysanthemum’s goons hopped up on stage, a spread of muscle thinly veiled under white cotton and blue denim.

“If you want merch, I’ll be right there.” I tried not to show the mix of peeved and scared at war behind my eyes: did Chrysanthemum know she was marked?

“Mamma C wants a word.” Mr. Muscles jerked a thumb over his shoulder at his boss, who tilted her head, smiled, and gave me a delicious little finger wave when she saw me looking.

“Sure.” I gulped. We were blown. This night wasn’t gonna end with us making pay dirt and a contract, but with our brains minced across the back alley, and our instruments disintegrated on the asphalt.

I followed Mr. Muscles, trying not to piss my tights. Relax. Just relax. You’re a badass bass player. You’re a sonomancer. What have you got to fear?

Angelica cast me a worried glance from the bar where she waited to collect our free beers. I gave her the tiniest shrug and shook my head. Stand by, sister. I don’t know what’s up just yet.

Mr. Muscles deposited me in front of Chrysanthemum’s table and slouched back into his place as one of his boss’s bookends. “Ms. Betty, right?” Chrysanthemum extended one of her hands with its long dainty fingers perfect for gouging out eyes. “You can call me Mamma C.”

I fought the urge to curtsey over that hand and gave it what I hoped was a standard, not-at-all-nervous shake. “Pleasure,” I managed through a closing throat. “How’re you enjoying your evening?”

She smiled, dropping my hand, and if I hadn’t been so scared shitless, I might have swooned right then and there. God, her teeth were pretty. And those eyes. Man. I could’ve stared into those eyes until eternity came and tapped me on the shoulder to tell me time was up.

“Y’all are fantastic,” said Mamma C. “Top notch. I love me some lady song-slingers.” She seemed to mean it, the smile crinkling the corners of her eyes, which only made them more transfixing.

“Thank you,” Only long practice at accepting bullshit compliments from drunk dudes tryin’ to land themselves in my pants kept me from blushing like a schoolgirl at the genuine, bona fide compliment she’d paid me. “I’m glad you’re havin’ a good time.” Thinking that was all she wanted to say, I turned to head back to supervising the sale of merch, but a butter-warm, silk-soft hand tightened on my arm, like a python constricting her prey.

“Just a minute,” said Mamma C. “I was wondering if y’all are free next Saturday. I’m throwin’ a party and my band canceled on me.” She pouted, and it was all I could do to keep from biting my lip.

“Next Saturday?” I asked, voice shooting up an octave while I found where my scattered thoughts had gone.

“Mmm hmm.”

Did they turn up the heat in here, or was it just me? “Yeah, yeah, we’re free.” We weren’t but how could we turn down the chance to make private party money? And, it’d be the perfect cover for completing our contract: one bird, two paychecks. Easy, right? We’d just give the Agency a little call, explain the situation. It wasn’t like we’d blow the kill; we’d just postpone it.

It’d be fine.

“Perfect,” Mamma C smiled that lazy predatory smile that promised to eat me all the way up. “Do you have a card? I’ll email you the details.”

My cold limp fingers somehow managed to slip into my dress pocket, scrounged past the digital tuner and the rosin to the stack of business cards I’d miraculously managed to load in there. “Here you go.”

“Thanks.” Another smile, and I could finally make my retreat.

“The heck was that all about?” Carla whispered in my ear as Angelica handed me my beer.

“We need to cancel that bar gig next Saturday.” My hands seeped sweat, and no amount of thigh-rubbing seemed to dry them. “Mamma C wants us to play a party for her.”

My band sisters blinked at me. “But the contract?” Carla asked.

“We ask Vasili and the Agency for an extension,” I said. “This is a big gig. We slay it, and who knows how many of Mamma C’s fancy friends will want to hire us next?” Whether as assassins or musicians didn’t matter much; a paying gig was a paying gig.

Carla crossed her arms. “Mamma C, is it now?” Her frown intensified from concern to girl-you’ve-gone-crazy. “You’re not getting cold feet at the prospect of blasting a pretty face, now are you?”

I shook my head, perhaps a little too vehemently. “No, this is strictly about the exposure.”

Carla snorted. “You know what they say about exposure, right?”

I waved the cliché away. “Yeah, yeah. This ain’t some coffee house gig where they pay in doughnuts and drink cards. This is a fancy-ass house party where all the up and ups in organized crime will be watching us. Plus, Mamma C pays good.” I didn’t know that, but a lady who could afford that manicure could afford to shell out for a band.

“Fine,” said Carla. “But you get to tell Vasili.” Her finger hung in the air before my nose, a symbol of her seriousness. “And update the Agency.”

I nodded, and we began our second set.