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.

The morning after, I was about half-way down the block from our tiny, shared apartment to a little corner café that did the most perfect sunny-side-up eggs in all existence when a heavy shadow sidled up on my left, attached to a heavy man. I looked up. Shit! It was one of Vasili’s guys, the one with the mustache that could’ve starred in its own one-mustache show. “Vasili’s not very happy with you.” He had a fist in the air, and it came down fast. Too fast. I couldn’t even wet my lips to try to whistle myself a shield. Damn dry mouth.

The fist descended and pain blossomed in my temple. Shit. Shit. Shit.

Everything went dark.

I came to tied to a chair by my wrists and ankles, a gag stuffed in my mouth. An exposed lightbulb hung from the ceiling, spotlighting me and a small circle of concrete floor.

“Looks like she’s awake, boss,” said a voice from the dark.

I ain’t awake enough for this shit.

“Good, good.” I knew that voice.

“Vasili,” I tried to say, but stupid me, I was gagged.

Footsteps echoed closer across the concrete. Feet entered my spotlight, attached to short stubby legs and a barrel-chested torso, topped off by a balding head. Vasili frowned at me. “Miss Betty, my apologies for meeting in this manner, but I thought it best to take precautions.”

What did he think I was going to do, kill the guy who was going to pay my way into the Agency? But I couldn’t make a snappy reply cuz of the god-damned gag, so I shrugged, even though it sent the ropes around my wrists digging into my skin.

“I’m not best pleased with you and your bandmates, Miss Betty,” Vasili continued. “As I was taking my walk this morning, collecting my thoughts, preparing for a beautiful day, who should I see but Chrysanthemum Montgomery walking across the street from me.”

“Take this gag out, and I’ll explain,” I tried to say, but again, there was that stupid gag, and all that came out of my mouth were grunts that seemed weirdly desperate, like I was trying to plead with him or something.

“Now.” Vasili leaned closer, bringing the strong cedar scent of his cologne with him. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what will happen to you and your bandmates for failing to complete your assignment.”

Shit. Was he gonna kill me? But no. We had three tries to complete the Agency’s entrance test. Vasili knew that, right? I tried to stay calm sitting tied up in this chair, but damn, was it hard. Usually, I had sound on my side, but the gag made me just another girl, not a sonomancer powerful enough to level a man with a hum and a whistle. I managed to growl at Vasili through the gag. I couldn’t put any power into that faint sound, but it came out menacing enough that Vasili jumped back, taking his cedar scent with him.

“Now, now,” Vasili said, trying to regain his composure by straightening his jacket and filling his voice with condescension. “Don’t you try any of that sound magic on me, Miss Betty. I’ve got sonomancers of my own singing up a pretty forcefield for me right now.”

I frowned. If he had sonomancers on his payroll, why did he hire us to kill Chrysanthemum Montgomery? Probably so the hit couldn’t be traced back to him. That was the nice thing about the Agency, after all: a cushion of deniability.

“Now, if you agree to play nice, I’m going to remove this gag, and we can talk about things like adults,” said the man who’d used his goons to kidnap me off the sidewalk and had me tied to a chair.

I rolled my eyes, couldn’t help it.

“Are we agreed?”

I shrugged, and again the ropes cut into my wrists.

“Nod, if you agree.”

God, this guy was a control freak. I rolled my eyes and nodded, and Vasili directed one of his muscle men to take out my gag. He approached warily as though I could do anything to hurt him in my present state. Didn’t he know he could kill me right now? I tried not to let that thought show in my eyes as the goon untied the gag, and I spat out the rag. “Next time, Vasili, I recommend a clean gag. That thing tastes like turpentine.” Miracle of miracles, my voice was calm and relaxed. This was just another performance, after all. I used my nerves to feed my bravery.

Vasili raised a near-invisible eyebrow. “I’ll take that under consideration, Miss Betty.” He looked at me a moment longer as though he wasn’t quite sure how to proceed since his scare tactics didn’t seem to work on me. Little did he know, I was about to piss myself.

“What do you want, Vasili?” I asked, trying to take control of the conversation. “Agency rules give us three chances to take out the target. Last night was a bust. Couldn’t get a clear shot, but we’ve got another chance on Saturday. The perfect chance.”

Whatever Vasili had been going to say seemed to slip out of his mind as I spoke. “You’re more resourceful than I gave you credit for, Miss Betty.”

Or more easily distracted by a pretty face. I kept that thought out of my eyes, though. “The mark liked our show so much that she’s hired us to play a private party on Saturday.”

Vasili’s eyes widened in shock. “Really?”

I narrowed my gaze. “Would I make this shit up when you’ve got me tied to a chair, Vasili?”

“I suppose not.” He seemed to relax, tension draining from his rounded shoulders. “It appears this was an unnecessary course of action.” He waved towards my chair-tied body. “Untie her.”

I stiffened. Was this it? Would he really let me go, just like that?

“It’s true, you have two more chances, by Agency rules,” Vasili said as I rubbed my newly freed wrists. “But I am not the Agency, Miss Betty. If Chrysanthemum Montgomery still breathes after Saturday night, I will come for you and your bandmates, and I will not be nearly so courteous.”

A week later, I hauled my Baby through the staff entrance of Chrysanthemum Montgomery’s massive house, trailing after my less-weighed-down bandmates to the room Mamma C set aside as our green room. The lady herself entered as we removed our instruments from their cases, clothed in gold lame that snaked around her like a Midas-touched river.

“I hope everything’s to your satisfaction, ladies,” Mamma C said. “I’d just like a word before I turn you over to the sound man.”

What could she have to say? Please don’t let it be any special requests. We had a tight set; we didn’t need a special request throwing a wrench in our flow.

“I know who you are, ladies,” Mamma C continued.

Well, of course, she did. She’d hired us to play for her. Why would she say that?

“I know Vasili sent you to kill me.”

Damn it. Where’d all the air go? I could have sworn the room was full of it, but I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t hum to save my life. My throat was dry, closed; I’d swallowed an entire desert. From their sheet-ghost complexions, Carla and Angelica were in the same state of brain-dead panic as me.

Mamma C smiled. Was it supposed to be reassuring or terrifying? My knees went weak. “Y’all have a choice.” Mamma C cracked her knuckles. “Admit the truth and deal with me, or I kill you now.” She was just the kind of lady who could follow through with that threat; I didn’t doubt that at all. Damnit, why was she so pretty, though?

“Deal?” I asked, somehow my voice found its way through all that sand and panic.

“Vasili has been a thorn in my side for years. I want him removed.”

“You want us to break our contract with Vasili?” I asked. What would that do to our reputations? Who would hire a group of assassins that might turn around and kill them instead of the intended target? And what about joining the Agency?

“I’ll pay double what Vasili’s paying you.” Mamma C smiled. “And I’ll give you a glowing recommendation for your entrance into the Agency.”

I locked eyes with Carla and Angelica, struggling not to whistle in awe. Double was very generous indeed, not to mention that a recommendation from Mamma C would set us up for life. But my mamma told me never to take the first offer, and did Mamma C have enough pull with the Agency to keep us from getting killed? I set my jaw, peeled my eyes away from my stupefied bandmates, and said, “Hire us full time.” I didn’t think about it. It just popped out, like all my best ideas.

Mamma C’s eyes widened in surprise. “As what, the entertainment? Ladies, y’all are good, but not live-in band good.”

“As enforcers,” I said, building bricks of confidence out of the sand in my throat. “Think about it, what could you do with three top-notch lady sonomancers on your payroll?”

Mamma C got a look in her eye like she liked where this was going.

“We kill Vasili, and you openly acknowledge us as yours,” I said, throwing words at the wall and hoping they stuck. The Agency wouldn’t interfere with a boss’s people, not even if we failed their test. Them’s were the rules. “We can spin it like we’ve been in your employ the whole time. Like you set Vasili up, that’ll keep the Agency off our asses.”

Mamma C grinned. “I knew there was a reason I liked you, Ms. Betty.” She patted my shoulder, and a tingle spread through my body. “Alright, ladies. I like it. Kill Vasili, and I’ll set you up.” With that, she turned and waltzed out of the room as if she hadn’t just ordered a hit.

Carla and Angelica let loose a shared held breath.

“Shit,” said Angelica.

Carla fell into a leather armchair. “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

“Money.” I squatted in front of her and took her hands. I hoped she believed that I believed what I said. “And security. Think about it. How cool will it be, working for a badass queen like Chrysanthemum Montgomery?”

A grin cracked Angelica’s lips. “Pretty cool.”

“But the Agency…” Carla stammered. “Can we trust her to keep ‘em off our backs?”

I shrugged. “There’s no turning back now. Either we trust her, or she kills us.”

The crowd was poppin’. They actually listened – a fantastic change of pace – and they danced – even better. It was such a rush, playing to a receptive crowd, like drinking lightning, like dancing through fire.

We were having so much fun playing that we almost forgot the real reason we were there until Vasili elbowed his burly way through the crowd to shuffle-dance directly in front of the stage. I grinned down at him. Couldn’t have lined up a more perfect shot.

I shifted my playing, swinging the beat – our signal to go for the kill. Carla nodded, throwing in some fiddle ornamentation to show her understanding. Angelica finished her vocal with a flourish on the guitar, and then we sank into the sound. Our bodies melted away, and we were one with each other, with the music, with the intent to kill. Who needed telepathy when we had music?

The rumble of the low E, the high treble of the fiddle, the brassy belt of the guitar, they wound around each other and blasted forward in a ball of malice that crashed into Vasili and through his chest: our will made manifest, carried on waves of sound.

Blood spurted up like thrown confetti.

Screams filled the crowd.

Vasili collapsed.

The final rumble of the bass note died, and we took a bow.

A single clap cut through the chaos, and Mamma C glided towards us through the crowd, a golden serpent closing in on Vasili’s swiss-cheesed corpse. “Well done, ladies.” She applauded, and the high of a job done well rushed through me, or maybe it was just her telling me I’d done well. “Well done, indeed.”

I broke away from those bewitching eyes and exchanged glances with Carla and Angelica. We’d done it. We were in the big leagues now. There was red on Carla’s cheek, in Angelica’s hair, spots of blood misting in the air, the heavy scent of iron.

We’d done it.

A sound filled the air, like popcorn popping, like a car back-firing, like the slap of boards breaking. Carla fell. Her eyes so wide and confused, and between them, a small red hole.

“What the – .” but Angelica didn’t get to finish. That popping sound kept on, and her throat burst red, and then she fell. Falling back and back and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t reach out to stop her fall.

My Baby rumbled in my grip. There were great, jagged holes torn through her carved front. How?

And then it hit me; that sound – it wasn’t popcorn, or a car, or boards – it was gunfire.

Carla was on the ground, bleeding out, and I couldn’t see Angelica.

They shot my bass. Those double-crossing assholes shot my fucking Baby.

A growl built in my throat – a scream. I’d make her pay for what she’d done, pretty face or no. I slapped my fingers to the strings. I didn’t even know what I was playing. It didn’t make sense, followed no theory or progression. I played out my pain in pizzicato.

My fingers bled.

Mamma C’s eyes widened in shock. “Stop her.”

I poured myself into the notes, and the bullets bounced off a sonomanced barrier. And then the shots stopped flying, all out. I sent out a blast of sound, knocking the crowd off their feet, leveling all the furniture in the room.

Mamma C staggered in front of the stage. Her gold lame now red, those pretty eyes fixed on me. “It’s all business,” she wheezed.

I couldn’t speak, not with words. Damn me for being so easily distracted. I tore at my Baby’s strings, pouring all my pain into a cacophony that leaped across the distance between us. The wall of sound rammed into Mamma C’s body, and she fell. Shattered.

The room, so loud a moment before, fell quiet. Still.

I clung to my Baby as I panted into that silence. Damn it. “I’m sorry, Carla, Angelica.” I didn’t have time for more than that.

A great groan filled the room, and a portion of the ceiling crashed onto the party guests’ sound-flattened corpses.

The house was falling down.

I heaved my Baby up into my arms, and I ran. Me and my bass, I ran as Mamma C’s house fell down around her perfect, shell-shaped ears.

Fuck. What happened?



There was no way they’d survived. I couldn’t turn back. All I could do was run because if anyone was still alive in that ballroom, they’d come for me.

I made it to the car, hauled my Baby into the back. “I’m sorry, Baby.” I stroked her splintered front. “I’ll make it better, I promise.” If not for my Baby, I would have been dead, full of bullet holes just like my song sisters. I owed her, my only living sister.

I put the car in gear, sped back to our apartment.

I had to pack. I had to run.

The Agency – they’d come for me now. They’d kill me if they caught me. I couldn’t stop moving or crying or shaking.

I threw open the door to our apartment, tears blurring the space that ought to have been so familiar to me.

“You got here quick, Miss Betty.”

I froze. I didn’t know that voice, sweet in a poisoned way, like arsenic-laced honey.

I wiped the blood and tears out of my eyes. “Who’s there?”

She was tall, wore a dark suit and a rakishly tilted hat over red hair trimmed neat to her ears. “My name doesn’t matter, Miss Betty,” she said, reaching a hand into the inner breast pocket of her suit.

I flinched. Had she come to kill me?

“Relax.” A smile shifted the left corner of her mouth upwards. “I’m not here to kill you. I’m here to give you your contract.”

“What?” I stared at her, mind too blank to function. “Contract?”

“Congratulations, Betty, you’ve earned your place in the Agency.” The smile found its way to the right side of her mouth and up into her eyes.

“The Agency?” I frowned. “But…” I did fulfill the contract. Mamma C was dead. I knew that much. I’d filled her gold-swathed body so full of holes, there was no way she could have lived. Tears streaked their searing way down my cheeks. “I don’t understand.”

“What’s there to understand, Betty?” She handed me a crisp envelope that carried the Agency’s seal: a sword crossed with a quarter note. “You fulfilled not one but two contracts in one fell swoop. It’s a shame about your bandmates, but fiddles and guitars are a dime a dozen. It’s hard to find a talented bass player these days.”

“What do you mean two contracts? Our test was the contract for Vasili.”

“And then Chrysanthemum Montgomery approached us seeking a hit on Vasili,” she said. “We figured that we’d let her use your band to see how you’d handle the situation.”

I stared at her. Anger filled my chest, hot as the tears on my cheeks. “You set us up. My friends are dead because of you.”

She shrugged. “Mamma C would have killed you all if you hadn’t killed Vasili. Vasili would have killed you if you hadn’t killed Mamma C. We would have killed you if you’d failed to kill either or both. I say the odds were against you and your friends. You should feel lucky that you beat the odds, Betty.”

“Funny.” My fist tightened around the envelope. “I ain’t feeling too lucky right now.”

The Agency representative shrugged again, shoved her hands deep into her pockets. “How you feel isn’t my problem. You’ve got a bright future with the Agency, Miss Betty. Don’t throw away the chance you’ve worked so hard to get.”

And then she left, and I was all alone in my too empty apartment.

I sank to the floor and stared at the envelope in my hands: my contract. I was officially a sonomancer for the Agency now. Dream achieved.

A sob cut through the empty silence. What do I do now, huh? What’s a bass player without a band?

Emily Randolph-Epstein was raised by a pack of wild poodles in small-town USA. She spent her childhood LARPing, reading fantasy novels, and writing Tamora Pierce fan fiction. After failing most enthusiastically to grow up, she is now an award-winning writer and musician living in Perth, Western Australia with her husband and dog. Her short fiction has been published in Dark Matter Magazine, Zooscape, and Infinite Worlds Magazine.

Leave a Reply