I'm not much of a mystery writer, really, so I've written what I like to call a "riff-fic." Taking the frame of one of my favorite Hammett stories, I've changed the locations and characters and other details, but left the basic plot alone. Sort of the inverse image of a fanfic. Hopefully this isn't woefully out of place in this community. Bonus points if you can guess the story it's based on, by the way...
Wedding gigs are the worst.
I think any musician will tell you this. Gotta wear the itchy tux, slog through the same decrepit standards over and over, plaster the fake smile on your face, and pretend that the bride and groom are a life-altering inspiration. Sure the money's good and there's usually free booze, but then that one time comes when you find yourself bound with a string of christmas tree lights to a straight-backed chair while some stupid punk holds a loaded gun pointed at your neck.
Let me back up.
The Andreev-Van Dyke wedding was a big formal affair. For me and the band, it was sleepy cocktail jazz and big stupid grins and that godawful Whitney Houston tearjerker song and ogling the bridesmaids and making the most of the hosted bar. Nikolai Andreev, paterfamilias and owner of the successfully trendy San Francisco restaurant where the reception took place, spared no expense and was paying us handsomely. As he danced, his snow-white beard quivered and his paunch shook. All night he had the twinkling faraway father-of-the-bride look in his eye, and he heaved Slavic-tinged Old World sighs.
When the last guest finally staggered out, I stayed behind to help the drummer pack up his kit. Since becoming a bandleader I've learned that it pays to help out the drummer, who always takes the longest. They're more inclined to work with you again that way, and with the dearth of decent drummers in town these days, every edge helps.
After he was done I carried my bass guitar and amp into the back room to see Andreev about our fee. I found the old man sitting behind a big oak desk sipping clear liquid from a shot glass with a melancholy air. He waved a hand drunkenly, vaguely indicating the chair opposite him.
"Ah the music man, come in, come in. Share a little spirit with me, eh?"
His words were a little slurred, but his smile beamed from within that bushy beard. I said I didn't mind if I did and leaned my bass and amp against his desk. Then I sat down as he found a glass for me and poured what was probably very expensive vodka into it.
We chatted for a while about the the changing neighborhood and the music kids like nowadays. His speech was becoming more thickly accented. I was on my second shot and my third "Yes it was a lovely wedding," when I felt something cold and metallic touch the back of my neck.
A low rumbly voice from behind me said "Now sit real still buddy. Don't fucking move."
Now that wasn't right. I was supposed to be having a nice polite drink and getting paid. I was not supposed to have guns pointed at me and hear third rate gangster movie dialogue. At the same time it was too bizarre to be a joke.
I squeezed my eyes shut tight and reopened them. Across from me was Andreev, still sitting politely as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, but his eyes had more focus to them than the last time I'd looked, and his brow was set harder. I could feel sweat standing out on the back of my neck near the muzzle of the gun, if that's what it was.
I tried to swallow but my throat was too dry. When I cleared my throat, I heard the clinking snap that I recognized as the cocking of a revolver. That is, assuming they sounded in real life like the did in the movies. My mind raced and I could hear my pulse pounding in my ears.
"Alright old man, tie him up so he can't move," the low voice behind me barked.
Andreev slowly gathered himself to rise, as if he resented the effort but was resigned to it. The fatherly gleam in his eyes was erased now.
"With what should I?" he asked the man behind me.
"Jesus I dunno," was the exasperated reply, "just find something."
Andreev walked past me without sparing me a glance and I heard him leave the room. The low-voiced man shifted his feet, sniffed, muttered something under his breath, but kept the gun pressed to my neck right above my collar.
Soon the old man returned and squatted down next to me. I tried to catch his eye but had no luck. He bent to the task of affixing me to the hard wooden chair, using long strings of Christmas tree lights that I had seen earlier hanging over the bar. As he methodically fixed each arm and each leg, he just breathed normally as if it were something he did every day. The tiny sharp bulbs dug into me painfully. I didn't think I'd be able to get out of the tight bonds, but I wasn't about to try with Low Voice still covering me either.
Once I was duly trussed up, the man behind me tested how strong the strings of lights were. With a grunt of approval, he stalked around in front of me and waved Andreev back to his seat.
Low Voice got his face right in mine and had a good look at me as he pocketed his gun. His breath smelled sour and he squinted his eyes. Not by choice, I got a good look at him too. He was ugly, pasty-faced, multiply-pierced, and a good decade younger than me. I had no doubt that he was the darling of the suburban shopping-mall punks, and that the girls in his high school swooned when he showed them his artful tattoos and sneered in just the right way.
I heard the door swing open behind me, and saw my captors look up towards it. There was a pause during which I turned my head over my shoulder to look too.
Though nobody tried to stop me from looking, all I saw was a shadow taking a step backwards through the doorway.
Then woman's calm voice came from the shadow: "Explain this, please."
Low Voice straightened up and licked his lips a little before answering, his eyes flicking nervously from me to the shadow.
"He - he's a fucking cop, Estrellita." He pronounced the Ls hard. "Or a private detective or some shit. My friend pointed him out to me a few months ago. He's an undercover guy. When he came walking back here..."
"That will be enough." The shadow cut him off sharply. "You know better than to use names. Now have you checked the identification in his wallet?"
Instead of answering, Low Voice began digging through my pockets, his weasely skinny fingers scooting all over places I really wished he wouldn't touch. Squinting his eyes, he looked like he was going to say something, but thought better of it.
He dumped the contents of my pockets onto the desk, and he and Andreev pawed through it all. There was nothing but cool silence from the unmoving shadow called Estrellita. They found the usual stuff there, including a wallet with too many business cards and too little cash, but nothing to indicate that I was any kind of cop, because of course I wasn't.
Now milder versions of this had happened to me a few times before, because I had a cousin on the SFPD who used to do undercover work, and he looked a lot like me. Like it or not, musicians and criminals often run in the same circles, but usually the only detrimental effects were nasty looks or the occasional muttered comment. All this pointing of guns was definitely new.
Low Voice reported to Estrellita that there was nothing to make anyone think I was a cop, hastening to add, in a voice pitched tighter than before: "But that don't mean shit, not if he's undercover... I've been watching him, casing the place. He's onto the whole thing!"
"You're making a spectacle of yourself," the shadowy figure replied wearily. She had a cultured, mannered voice, a voice that had taken elocution lessons at Vassar and gotten straight-As. The punk made an almost whimpering kind of noise in his throat as he cut off the stuttering flow of words. His hands moved instinctually to touch the pocket where he had stashed his gun, as if reassured by its weight.
The affected voice of Estrellita continued: "You've already shown your face to him and told him my name. Let's not make things any worse than they already are... Ah and here comes another member of our party. No dear, stay here with me in the dark so our guest can't see you, and don't speak."
I saw Low Voice look suddenly nervous and stiff, standing up straight as a board and working his mouth like something was caught in his teeth. At the same time a sort of warm smell drifted into the room - sandalwood or coconut, something like that. There were hushed murmurs from the doorway: cooing sounds from Estrellita, and a voice more rounded and golden responding, though I couldn't make out any of the words.
Red rising in his face as he watched the doorway, Low Voice drew his gun out again and pointed it right in my face. My heart skewed in my chest and I felt nausea twist through me.
"Well I ain't taking any fucking chances," he growled. "He won't be able to identify me if he's dead."
Three things happened in rapid succession as my head swam dizzily with fear: Estrellita barked a cold, harsh command, Low Voice's face contorted in surprise, and Andreev's hands appeared out of nowhere to yank the gun out of the punk's grip. When I was able to breathe steadily again, I saw that Andreev was back in his seat behind the desk, looking just as lethargic and aloof as before, while Low Voice paced back and forth in nervous frustration.
By force of will I managed to force my heartbeat to slow, and the rush of blood in my ears subsided. The conversation swooped into my consciousness.
"...truly are hopeless," shadowy Estrellita was saying, her voice attaining a southern twang as it turned shrill, "We gain nothing from his death, and lose much. Supposing he is undercover. Do you suppose he's the only one who knows about our operation? Focus, my young friend, and we will ride this out. You will not ruin this for the rest of us."
There was a soft giggle from the other doorway-voice, and a whisper that I thought contained the words "big hurry" and "premature."
"God fucking dammit!" grunted Low Voice, balling up his fists at nothing.
"Yes I quite see your point," replied Estrellita. And both voices from the door laughed as sharply and rhythmically as machine-guns.
When she had recovered, shadowy Estrellita addressed Andreev: "Nikolai, thank you for your hospitality as always. Obviously your restaurant is no longer a safe location for our meetings, thanks to our impetuous friend." Her voice had lost its previous drawl and was cool and precise again. "You may go, and be assured that we will be in touch about your cut soon."
As silently and implacably as ever, Andreev rose from his seat, nodded to Low Voice, handed the gun to Estrellita, and plodded out of the room, his only goodbye a soft grunt.
"Now," the woman in charge started up again, "If I give you your gun back, can you keep yourself from getting into further trouble?"
Low Voice looked like he wanted to shriek and yank out all his piercings, but instead thought the better of it and just nodded his head dumbly.
She continued to speak, even as he walked to the doorway and took the gun from her: "I'm going to put this in a language you can understand: If he dies, you die. Is that simple enough for you?"
He nodded again, but I could see the rage was just seething in him right below the surface. I hoped this Estrellita had his number, because I didn't like the way things looked. I strained and pulled at the Christmas-tree lights as I watched him pocket the gun again as I watched him pocket the gun again, but I couldn't budge.
Low Voice swallowed audibly and said “Hey I’m gonna gag this asshole with something, so he won’t do any screaming.”
“Yes, you do that,” replied Estrellita. “And you remember what I said. I’ll gather up the items and we’ll prepare to depart.”
There was a muttered exchange from the doorway, and I heard someone walk away. Just one set of footsteps, though. Meanwhile, the punk was searching around the room, looking for something to keep me from shouting. My throat was so dry that I doubt I could have managed more than a squeak anyway. I winced at the thought of fragile glass Christmas-tree lights in my mouth, but I needn’t have worried. Evidently tired of hunting around, Low voice grabbed a small cushion that was in the seat of Andreev’s recently-vacated chair.
With a sneer on his face and a gurgling gutteral sound in his throat, he walked to me and stuffed one end of the little pillow in my mouth, working it in with his hand. There was a glint in his eye that I did not like at all, and I almost gagged a couple of times. My jaw was forced wide open and the cushion tasted like decomposing cotton that an old man had been sitting on regularly. Worse, it was still warm on my tongue.
"Yeah, you're a read pillow-biter, ain't you?" His snicker was one of the most adolescent things about him, and it went on far too long, as if he were trying to convince himself of his own cleverness. Once he was finished with his work, he stepped back and looked me over, then shifted his eyes to the doorway.
Trying to keep his voice quiet, he hissed "Luna, hey Luna," and made a fanning come-here gesture with his hand.
There was a pause, then from the doorway: "I don't think so, Spike. I better not. You heard what Lita said." The words rang and shimmered like silver, and made you automatically wonder about the shape and texture of the mouth that uttered them. I craned my neck around to try and see, but only saw a dark smoky shape.
Low Voice – Spike I guess – made a frustrated squeaking sound, and burst out "Fuck Estrellita! Come on out here!"
His mouth set into a grimace and he was about to stamp his foot when she sighed and walked in the room. When she rounded near me into the lamplight, I got a good look at her.
To say that she exuded sex in every graceful step would be an understatement. Each subtle motion of her body seemed to shift her curves into a continually more attractive arrangement. It was hard to put your finger on exactly what feature it was that made your eyes snap to her and stay snapped. Her chestnut-brown hair was worn long, the kind of hair you thread your fingers into over and over, and it framed a smooth attractive face. Long dark lashes shadowed eyes that glowed like polished jade. Her scarlet lips lifted into a smile as she looked at me, exposing sharp little teeth. She was laughing at me, the skinny bass-player trussed up in a chair with a pillow hanging out of his mouth, and yet the smile still made my toenails tingle. I clenched and unclenched my fingers on the arm of the chair. About an hour later, I would remember to breathe again.
--End of Part 1, look here next week for Part 2--