We Begin the Beguine

“Does our Miss Emma believe in fate?” Dance asks.

Emma rubs her eyes, looks up from the stack of grant application paperwork. “What are you talking about?”

“Does Miss Emma ever pray for good luck, as some of the ladies of the Metro do before a performance?” Dance asks. He is reading sheets of music, and marking changes in careful details from his scribbled session notes. He has a lot of them. Conductor Richard Young must have been on a roll that afternoon.

“Nooo,” Emma says, amused. The sardonic editor in the back of her head remarks, Only because it takes too much to make you ask. You haven’t been on hard times that bad in the last two years Dance has been living here. She blinks it away and says, “What brings this up?”

“Maestro Young was yelling when somebody new walked in on our practice. This guest waved hello at us and sat down to watch. Of course Young has his instinct for patrons. But this one witness simply shut off Young’s temper. There was much speculation.”

“What’d he look like, this new guy?”

“Oh, we didn’t see him very well. Not well enough to gossip. Tall,  big.  Freckle, red hairs, sports guy with a beard, going gray. Good-natured.”

“Probably not one of our regular patrons. I’ll check it out,” Emma says absently, her eyes going back to her papers. She doesn’t look at Dance again until she’s sure he’s preoccupied with his notes. But she smiles a little. So Dance doesn’t think he got a good enough look?

When he glances up with an inquiring gaze, she blinks innocently at him. Maybe Dance isn’t as preoccupied as she thought. “Not luck,” she says, dead-pan, “I believe in planning.”

Patron of The Arts

“Whoa, Navarre, how did that grab you!”
Drin looks up and his automatic politician’s smile becomes genuine. “You were absolutely right, Engerman, it’s a very nice little orchestra. I’ve got to thank you for the ticket– a truly delightful evening!”
“Soothe the savage beast, don’t it? I’m telling you, these kids work so damn hard, and these fundraisers are nothing compared to what they can do– all nice, polite, safe, yeah. A little Mozart, Bach, a little Corngold, nothing too lush, nothing too modern…”

“And no pressure,” says a white-haired man standing behind them, grinning up at Engerman.

“Oh, there you went!” Engerman exclaims, bumping into somebody else instead. “I was just going to–”

“Engerman, my dear boy, I knew exactly where you were. Nice presentation last week, by the way. Very clear.”

“Oh, thanks! Bud Innes, this is Drin Navarre, who’s running the field audits section these days–”

“Yes, I’ve read the reports. I’ve been out of town a lot, so I haven’t had a chance for a staff meeting down at your office, my apologies,” Bud says, offering his hand and smiling up at them both. Normally Drin would step back a little, but Innes is clearly not a bit intimidated by having to crane his neck in this crowd. Innes is prematurely white, he looks no older than Drin does, and he’s just as fit.

“Welcome to the company, Mr. Innes–”
“Bud, please,” he says pleasantly, waving at the crowd in the lobby around them. “I’ve enjoyed reading your reports, by the way.”
Drin glances at Engerman, who coughs into his hand to avoid laughing.
“You’re such a methodical, consistent, patient cuss. I see those red pencil corrections, I just start cracking up. I know where that’s going.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Not everybody appreciates editing.” Drin says. Bud’s eyebrow signals his appreciation of the dry joke.
“Yeah, yeah, see? Was I right? Is this guy totally made for quality control or what?” Engerman says excitedly.
Bud pats Engerman on the arm. “A lot of auditors prefer getting out in the field to crabbing about other people’s goofs.”
Engerman shrugs. “Gotta have both to make it all work, takes all types, right?”
Bud looks up at Drin. “How did you like the first half tonight?” He nods at the crowd.
“The strings are particularly fine,” Drin says.

“I agree, but I am hopelessly biased,” Bud says.

“Got a hell of a first chair, that Korean kid,” Engerman says. “He came over here on a prize grant. Couldn’t get a better concertmaster, I’m telling you!”

Drin gets several thumps in the lapel with Engerman’s meaty Gameboy thumb, but he doesn’t mind. He’s used to it. Some weekends have been devoted to shouting stupidly at computer monitors while Engerman stomps him at just about everything.

“The improvement in the repertoire is just–”

“I noticed several soloists. He’s willing to share the glory?” Drin asks.

“All to the good, since the man just doesn’t have that star quality, does he. Not like Valerie Philips, for instance. You saw her, the flautist with the red hair, my god what a beauty! She stands up and you just can’t take your eyes off her!”

Drin agrees that Valerie is a woman of exceptional parts.

Bud Innes chuckles. “Excuse me, guys, I’ve got a cellist to pester–” and he’s gone.

“Here they come– let me do some introducing.” Drin lets himself be dragged into their path, to shake hands with the red-haired flautist, and a curly-haired, doe-eyed, wide-browed young man who plays second cello, and who’s already languishing on the arm of Drin’s new boss. More strings wander out. Drin meets many of them, including — “It’s a cockeyed name, but immigrants, you know”– the first violin.

“It is Dance of Knives,” the man says, and his hand is shockingly strong. He grips Drin’s fingers as precisely as he does the arthritic knuckles of the old ladies nearby, paying exact attention. The musician as athlete, Drin thinks in surprise. Drin wants to turn it over, inspect the calluses he feels. But this person is so odd, so self-contained, so subtly forbidding, that he forbears to do any such thing.

“Don Ridcully Innocenzio Navarre,” Drin says, and enjoys the flicker of startlement.

The oddly light brown eyes regard him for a beat, two beats, and the mouth relaxes into a wide smile. He has very white teeth, some with ragged sharp edges. “Perhaps this is not American name either?”

“Most people call me Drin,” Drin tells him, and the violinist says; “I am often called only Dance.”

Stradivarius violin“We’re bringing Drin into the fold,” Engerman says with his arm possessively over Drin’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s get you onto the mailing list– because to tell you the truth,” and his voice goes warm and confiding, and Drin begins laughing before the words fall out of the man’s mouth, “the Metro needs help.”

“Of course it does,” Drin chuckles. “These little ensembles, all of them are holding on by the skin of their teeth. Engerman, I’d be delighted to become a patron. Who do the checks go to? Do I get to watch rehearsals?”

“Yes, Mister Drin, please come,” Dance says. “Excuse us, please, we must…” he’s already turning away. He pauses. “It is a great pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“I know he’s an odd duck,” Engerman says after a moment. “But a hell of a violinist.”

“What’re you drinking?” Drin says, and steers his companion towards the bar.

Stress Fractures

“Stress fractures,” Bud Innes pronounces. His twinkling eyes belie the solemn portentousness of the words.

“Oh?” Drin says encouragingly.

“All these blow-ups and upsets, small wars… They keep the greater mass from self-destructing, you understand. The First Violist was expecting to take the lead political place, telling the second violin what to do all the time, and then out of nowhere, some odd little Korean creature steps into the Concertmaster position… Madame Le Chatter does not forgive easily. Which may be tough on Dance, but the orchestra as a whole has a new source of entertainment. If the leadership doesn’t provide something to talk about–hell, a group this size? Gossip. They’ll invent stuff on their own.”

There are quite a few days now when Drin does not go home after work. He’s spent most of the evening listening to an extended rehearsal, and now he’s at somebody’s house nibbling on an amazingly subtle little mushroom potpie with a crust that evaporates on his tongue. Aside from the potential risks or rewards of socializing with his employer, Bud Innes seems to be a good mind to tap into, a guide for this new world he’s exploring.

“You say it’s not worth worrying about?” Drin asks. “The simmering rebellion in the brass? The disillusion and withdrawal I’m hearing from the winds?”

“All of it perfectly natural.”

“The Great Maestro bullying a pregnant girl?” Robert’s nasal voice chimes in. “Hi Papi,” he adds, and slides into Bud’s embrace. Robert is the languishing pre-Raphaelite sybarite of the orchestra. Drin has found himself staring at the man during rehearsals, halfway expecting a nimbus of illumination around his head. It’s rather disappointing to find him so very spoken for. Bud says he finds the voice nostalgic.

“We must thank Mister Drin.” The Korean Concertmaster joins them in the kitchen. He looks up at Drin. “Thankyou for calming Miss Twillzer. Very… very kind. So good at soothing frightened girls.” He makes a strange, awkward gesture, lifting his arms and dropping them, as if to demonstrate his inept soothing skills.

“And you are very good at defending them,” Drin says.

“We can have no ground to work on if Miss Twillzer was ordinary in diligence and skills. She is not merely chorus girls with bad legs.” It’s inflected with a sharp, odd imitation of Young’s own accent, in bitter quotation.

Young really did go too far, Drin thinks, reducing that pregnant kitten of a girl to a pathetic bundle of misery, sobbing right there in the kitchen that evening. Dance had stopped Young, stepping quietly into the insults. Others witnessed it, and the story will be far and away before the night is over. Drin lifts his champagne flute in salute to the Concertmaster. “I still want to tell Young, ‘Hey, if you have to go that far to rile up somebody’s temper, you’re just not doing it right.'”

Bud Innes snorts into his champagne flute.

“We are very glad you came in, too. Our Mister Drin is so well identified as a partisan of musicians.” Dance’s eyes are brown again. During the rather chaotic episode one half hour ago, they had turned the spooky pale color of gold coins.

“I doubt I’ll repent of it.”

Dance gives a crooked little smile; “What’s an orchestra without fuss, yes?” and offers a heated platter.

“But the Twillzer will have to go on maternity leave soon, Young was right about that,” Drin murmurs while ruminating over spinach and onion and cheese.

“We put together a list with Madame Le Chatter long since, and she is calling violists to audition a month ago. We told him, but Maestro Young forgot.” Dance turns to Bud and Robert with the next plate.

“I’m afraid we jumped the gun when we signed Young’s contract.” Bud is apologetic. “What can you do? Unfortunately, the old guard on the board remember his father…”

“Pity he didn’t remain a cellist,” Robert says, in his bitch-voice. “They decide they can’t make it as pros, and become conductors instead. Especially when they have all the control freakitude to become a conductor and composer.”

Dance gives a little pained noise, hastily stifled.

“Have you heard the maestro’s compositions?” Robert says.

Bud has a skeptical eyebrow hoisted high already.

dark clothes, Chen Kun
The Critic

Dance looks at Bud, totally deadpan. “Philip Glass is in no danger.”

“Is that why Amalia and Robert get on Young’s nerves so fast?” Drin says.

Robert just gives a wicked smile, and a shimmy of his hips. “I can fiddle rings around him. And my papi would beat up the big bully, anyway.” He shoots a simpering wink towards his papi.

“Drive Dance nuts, too,” Bud says, returning a stern look.

Dance says dryly, “Because of course Maestro Young takes it out on other people.”

“Well, you’re such a big ole bully, too!” Robert exclaims, laughing. “Dance kicked me yesterday, I swear!”

“Well, you fell down anyway, I saw that one,” Bud says.

Dance’s face goes a darker bronze, and he turns away hastily to the microwave.

Bud says in a silly voice, “Oh look, ooops, no idea how he did that, I was just passing…”

“I could show you the bruise he left, too!” says Robert.

Dance brings out steaming cinnamon rolls, and gives a shrug.

Drin says, amused, “Foot sweep, for the win!”

“Little bit,” Dance admits. “Distraction works.”

Robert makes an indignant noise, but he clearly loves the attention.

Dance gives him a stern look. “We go catch you on your little curly head. What does Mister Bud’s favorite cellist want?”

“You should say you’re sorry.” No one can match the power of Robert’s pout, and even Dance’s lips begin to twitch upward.

“But we are so not sorry,” Dance says, and reveals his singularly sweet smile.

“Why me? Why don’t you kick Young? He started it.”

Dance turns away, starts rinsing off dishes, putting them in the rack to dry. So careful, so controlled, the fingers moving just so. “It would not be wise.”

“You would totally kill him with your Kung Fu mojo, right?”

“I do not do Kung Fu, Mister Robert.” Dance says. “Taking towel, please.”

“Bully,” Robert says, and moves to stand at the Concertmaster’s side.

Schools Of Leadership

Drin finds himself staring at a pair of backsides. One man has long curly golden hair; the other’s is long, straight, and black.

Dance hands Robert a plate. “Go make deadly smile mojo. Take food so people don’t start feeling neglect, yes?”

Robert looks over at Bud. “But I’d rather be in here with you,” Robert says.

“Don’t pout,” Robert’s Papi admonishes him. “I know you would, sweet. It’s the burden of being so pretty, you’re one of the faces of the Metro, we need you cheering people up. I’ll be in shortly to rescue you.”

“Promise?” Robert says, but he goes.

The gentleman who seems to have brought Robert to heel sips his champagne, and leisurely eats some of the rolls, and some of the smoked things. “Dance, your balance of herbs is superb,” he says.

“We must thank you,” Dance says gravely. “We find shaved ice and fruit syrops for dessert. Is Mister Bud of the same school of leadership as Drin?”

“What school is that?”

“The kiss, not the kick,” Dance says.

“Well, I happen to know that Drin has a damn fine kick on him too. We just don’t employ bodily harm as our first ploy out of the box. So how did you knock Robert down?”

“Step on Mister Robert’s shoelace. He walks on–” Dance’s hand diagrams the comic disaster.

Bud cracks up. “I gotta make him pick out loafers instead!”

“Many kissings, not oops,” Dance agrees.

“You and Amalia are gonna have to keep on kicking him, poor boy,” Bud says.

Dance nods. “Our job, making Robert want to work hard.”

“Speaking of work, Drin, did you ever hear back what happened on that Rarebon Corporation audit? The one where the subcontractor and the estimator shared some really dumbass kickbacks?”

“Oh, that was the unmanned drone system, dummying up old Russian military surplus for emergency service functions. We’re waiting on sentencing. How were you involved in testifying on that court case?”

“My goddamn due diligence. I had to fess up what I learned about their operations beforehand, why we dropped their offer after we bought the company. I don’t like wasting time in court. Hell, it’s not new, we’ve kept an eye out on that bunch for years. So do the feds. Stupid games, anything with ‘dumbshit mobster’ stamped all over it. No thank you.”

Drin nods. “Just as a matter of public interest, my section got involved as independent witnesses on which records were altered and which files just disappeared.”

“Yeah, the way you start pulling line on a snarled fly cast, and pretty soon you got yourself a monster fish you can’t get rid of. No game for amateurs.” Bud turns slightly toward Dance, tells him, “Drin’s bunch of auditors pulled so many cute tricks they might as well run around court on unicycles with toy horns and rubber clown noses, I swear to God.”

“Don’t give them any ideas!” Drin says, horrified.

Bud just grins. “That answer your question, Dance?”

“Yes. Our favorite patrons believe in avoiding any need to kick. When our Mister Bud and Mister Drin do swing at them, get out soap, it is mop-time,” Dance says. Then he brings out another plate. “Does that save fuss?”

Bud grins wider. “Yeah, later on. Usually. At least, I think so,” and he pops another lump of prosciutto in his mouth. “Mmm, I do like these, Dance.”

Drin nods, mouth full.

“We shall make more, next time,” Dance says, and he’s pleased enough that he smiles.

“Don’t take any shit off Young,” Bud says to the concertmaster. He indicates Drin, and himself. “You let us know. Robert’s gonna tattle on you anyway at Board meetings, so you might as well give it to us when it happens.”

“Oh yes, Mister Bud,” Dance says, and he’s still smiling.

Bud looks at him. Looks at Drin, winks, as if to say, ‘Let me show you something.’ Bud says to the Concertmaster, “So how did you figure out Young might go ballistic on poor little Twill?”

“Miss Twillzer is prompt, she comes early always, nobody here, it comes her turn as catnip toy, yes?” Dance gives an embarrassed little shrug. “My temper runs off leash. Sneak attack on poor Twill, of all girls! I let him provoke me, that was not wise.”

“Oh, you mean you’re a fucking human being?” Drin says.

“Shocking,” Bud agrees.

“And very unwise,” Dance says, looking at them. “But very grateful.”

“Well, we’re dismissed,” Bud says, grinning. “I’ll just go rescue Robert, that bitch Amanda probably got her claws into him.”

“Give me some more plates, Dance, and I’ll circulate,” Drin says.

“Too kind,” Dance says. “These have olives, these do not.”

“Oh, I just like to gossip. Make sure the spin goes the way I want.”

Bud Innes has indeed rescued Robert, and just as briskly detailed Robert to babysit a whole set of new patrons, where the pretty boy is telling them stories and basking in their praise. Bud’s no dummy.

Bud sees Drin coming with loaded plates, and grins, and resumes talking to the three even older men who are nodding gravely at what he says. Drin passes around them like a waiter, and moves on to the next little knot of people.

He finds himself watching the raconteur in that group. This storyteller is a younger woman, waving her hands and bending her head around and imitating noises, and speaking in an growling alto. She has an Aussie accent that she’s tamed down for company. He’s a total sucker for accents of nearly any kind, can’t help himself, but this one is killing him.

The nuances get buried because Young is holding court in the next room, getting loud. She pauses, as she might for a loud jet. Drin heads dutifully in that direction.

He and his plates get a glare from Young. Quite a few patrons sit listening to Young giving them all puffery about what the symphony will be able to do in six month’s time, when Young has no intention of staying that long. No wonder many of them look puzzled. Defying the union agreement, blowing up the public relations budget without a new source of funds, doing big pieces with fewer musicians and fewer administrative bodies to support it all–puffery, all of it.

Drin is suddenly impatient with the pretty soapsud lies. When he returns, he can see Robert’s patron is, too. He tilts his head toward the kitchen, and they both stroll away. Bud chooses a route where they can be seen from both rooms.

Is there anything more delicious than feeling Young’s gaze on their backs?

“Well, that was fun, been wanting to do that for days.”

“We’re being bad, and somebody else may get to pay for it,” Drin says.

“As always,” Bud replies.

Robert brings them both fresh flutes of champagne, and then a plate of lovely little smoked things with toothpicks. Then stools, and they perch at Dance’s counter.

“Mmm, artichokes and herbs,” Drin says. “Who made those?”

“We always ask Dance to bring those,” Robert Goldstein confides, stroking Bud’s arm lightly. In a stage whisper, Robert says, “He’s never got enough money to buy much of the really good prosciutto, so we only give it to people we really like.”

“So we’re being bad that way,” Dance says, and his dark hands twirl a plate of fragrant herbal things on home-made rolls out of the microwave, setting it gently in front of them.

Drin takes a big sniff, sighs happily, and glances up to see Dance’s eyes gravely considering him. Then Dance smiles, just a little, and his shoulders relax.

Drin thinks, Dammit, it doesn’t take that much to help him out. It’s not like he ever asks Young for a damn thing.

 

sandwich on baguette seen end on
You had me at prosciutto

 

“Give me another load to distribute, please,” Drin says. A strand of black hair falls over Dance’s shoulder. It is starting to come loose from his severe black ribbon, the same way it does when he solos. He’s about to twist it up impatiently into a knot. Drin has seen him do it in rehearsals.

The hair makes Drin want to pull it, just to see what Dance will do about it.

Maybe another time; but not tonight, not after Young provoked the guy. Drin escapes into the crowd. Well, not so much of an escape, when he hears that Aussie accent tugging on him again.

When Drin swings by that group, she’s still got them enthralled. She pulls off a hoary old joke adapted for new use by making the bad guy a saltwater crocodile, and she smiles as people laugh. Eats a nice chunk of cheese in one gulp, nods her thanks, grabs extra pieces, and conveys them to one of the guys who can’t see so well. “Try that, see if you like it,” Emma says.

Emma something. Librarian who coordinates events at various branches with the Metro. The way she conducts the group, a little tap of her hand here and a flash of the eyes there, it makes Drin wish she was organizing the musicians the same way. Hell, the way Young ought to be doing. The way Dance already does, as far as he can.

“No worries, love,” she growls at another one of her really aged admirers, smiling and touching his shoulder. The poor old guy flutters like a shred of translucent vellum under the impact of it–and that voice! Drin can feel his eyes trying to roll back in his head in exactly the same way.

Well, it’s also the body. Her proportions aren’t slowed down by the unhappy lines of a cheap silk dress. But nobody’s hanging off her arm. Very odd. Usually a woman like that will have an entourage trailing around after her.

It takes him awhile to realize why.

She gets more done if she’s open to anybody who comes up to her. So she’s working alone. They’re lining up to get a look and a little kiss on the cheek, a pat on the arm, and a husky word of thanks whispered in their ear. She doesn’t forget to go around and thank people who’s helped out before, and yes– there she goes– talking them into re-upping. She’s enlisting volunteers.

It’s something to see.

actress Emma Watson in turquoise silk
Who’s Next?

“No sugar-coating there,” Bud says in Drin’s ear. “That’s all just the solid goods. Talk about leadership! God, I love dames.”

“It’s a rare model,” Drin says wryly.

“Two more seconds of staring like that, and I couldn’t save you, man. She’s gonna zero in,” Bud warns him. “She can sniff out bi-guys like you in nanoseconds, and she has no mercy.”

Drin winces. “What was it, the drool, or the cross-eyed stare?”

Bud laughs. “Oh hell, man, you love everybody.”

 

The Back Room

There’s half-heard sound, coming out of the backstage hallway. It raises Drin’s hackles and sends adrenalin shrilling through his bloodstream, a vocalization of pain and fright that brings him to his feet before his conscious mind even understands what it is that he heard. He drops the accordion file of records and he’s moving fast and silent when he hears a soft scrabbling, a choked sigh.

Drin glances in the unisex restroom–clean, empty–and then he looks in the open door of the room at the end of the corridor. This is stuck away at the very top floor of the Metro’s building, a green room for less important ensembles. Hot, stuffy odd little room, with a small bank of gym-style lockers at the back, with a bench in front of it.

A gaggle of older folding chairs take up what space is left. The trashcan is empty, but there’s papers scattered, as if choirs or backup performers wait here all the time, and the theater’s janitorial doesn’t always bother to clean up after them. He steps inside to check on it, and sees something on the floor. It takes him a moment to realize what it is.

It’s a lock of black hair, flung in a lazy arc on the floor. His eyes follow the line, in horrified deja-vu, and then he sees the loose gray folds of somebody’s sweatshirt, and he relaxes. No one is hurt.

It doesn’t belong to any of the women, that long black hair.

The Metro’s first violinist is curled up on his side, underneath the bench by the lockers, with his shoes off and his legs tucked around the bench support in the middle. He appears to have been asleep, with his head propped uncomfortably on his folded arm. He’s thrashed his socks and his sweats into a rumple, the legs twisted and the shirt rucked up so his belly shows, the muscles tan against the dark floor. His eyes are glittering slits, just barely open.

Drin pushes the outer door mostly shut, and threads his way through the chairs. He becomes aware that somebody moved the chairs to make it impossible to get at the bench without making noise.

He sits down on the other end of the bench, and takes off his jacket, and folds it up neatly into a bundle. Then he holds it down below the level of the bench. “You can return it at your convenience,” he says cheerfully.

The hand takes it from his grip gently. “This is silk,” says Dance, softly.

“Cleans better,” Drin says. “You get some rest. Want me to close the door? It won’t lock you in?”

“That would be nice, thank you, Mister Drin,” Dance says.

“Any time,” Drin says, getting up. He moves the chairs back into their defensive positions as he walks out. He makes sure the door latches.

Poor guy, he thinks grimly. God knows what it is that induces a guy to sleep under a bench, hiding away in the least-expected room around, out of all the places he could have chosen, but at least he’ll have some peace and quiet. He’s got the sudden idea that this is what Dance does with his lunch breaks, or the dead time between different kinds of practices when he may be one of the few people left in the building. God knows Maestro Young is chewing up most of their evenings with rehearsals, and Dance is constantly bringing in all kinds of string scores, not just his own section, that must have taken hours overnight to correct to the conductor’s satisfaction.

woman sitting on floor with tools
Making those Corrections

For that matter, why isn’t he out there in a restaurant getting something to eat, talking to people? There’s an absolute requirement, for any musician with ambitions on moving up. He should be chasing every last chance to make himself known.

But there he is, as if he’s just had enough.

Enough what? Nobody talks about personal entanglements. Gossip doesn’t know much of anything about Dance, which is odd, given how much influence he has. No lovers, certainly. Dance may actually be asexual, for all Drin knows. Seems a shame, but it’s certainly possible. There’s no there there, on the personal front.

Dance doesn’t chase anybody; he never flirts; he absolutely forbids the politics of who’s sleeping with who to cross that glacial expression he gets when he’s sorting things out in the strings. If he knows, he never says.

With all the repeated sly barterings Drin has watched happening, a cellist’s ass saving the flute’s chair, he’s never witnessed even the least hint of willingness from Dance in that respect– although he’s always saving the entire group’s emotional basket. His successes are taken entirely for granted, which is annoying.

Well, there’s the money, too, or lack of it. It’s not hard for Drin to poke around in the Metro’s records, as their new auditor, and look up various musician’s salaries. It explains why so many of them flock noisily, like a bunch of starlings, over to local bars and taverns to clean out happy hour finger food. Dance doesn’t buy snacks or lunch when he chats with people. He might get some water. Granted, he’s not a real large guy, but he probably gets hungry. Would he take it, if you just handed him a sandwich out of nowhere?

But Drin knows the answer to that one.

Oh, he’d take the first one, and then he’d evaporate like a feral cat, and you’d never get near him again. Dance reveals as little as possible to all the sharp-eyed, competitive divas in the Metro.

Context, it’s all about building something to lean into–which could take a while.

It’s interesting, too. Like theater people, a lot of the symphony’s members would sack out dramatically in the midst of company, honestly unable to sleep unless their tribe is nearby. They rely on the bustle of other people around them all the time. Everybody knows it when they’re upset at the top of their lungs.

Not Dance, who wants to be left alone with his bad dreams.

Drin picks up his scattered records, sorts out the accordion file, and walks toward the office again. Unlocking the door to put things away, he suddenly realizes that he doesn’t want to oblige. He doesn’t want to respect the violinist’s privacy. How ridiculous; why can’t he find it in himself to chase the oblivious, self-centered, curly-haired second cellist, and just make Bud Innes laugh at him, like everybody else? Before Bud’s arrival, he could have had Robert in about four hours flat, according to rumor. Get laid, get screamed at when he won’t spend enough money on absurd indulgences, get clear in about three weeks. Of course there’s other folks in the Metro who’d be pleased to borrow Robert’s playbook. What’s not to like?

Why would he so much rather coax the aloof cat back there under the bench to have a goddamn sandwich for a change?

I meant to be here anyway, what are you looking at?

Well, of course it means more when a tiger like that finally comes up to get their ruff scritched. He knows cats.

You may provide chin scritching, if you are so inclined. If not, go to hell.

Feeling like he wants to, that’s the weird part.

But now that he’s thought about it– it’s what he wants. Hey, everyone needs a hobby.

Hints from the Choir Room

Drin makes up his mind finally when he sees something perfectly ordinary. Up in the little choir room, he sees Dance has propped up his legs on a second chair, slouching back with his arms folded, chin on his chest, with his eyes shut. It’s between rehearsals for two different groups, and Dance needs to be there for both practices, although the other strings do not. He’s looking far too thin. He hasn’t gone off to buy himself lunch, either. As Amalia the First Cellist would say: Something Must Be Done.

Drin wonders whether he should intrude with his jacket again, or with a good dose of bossiness, perhaps the kind that includes sweeping the musician off for lunch with plenty of hot soup.

He stares in, considers the way Dance has his hands tucked in, although this is the warmest room available. He wonders whether Dance is hurting in the building’s winter chills, or if he’s got any heat at home. He’d never admit to going hungry, either.

Korean noodle soup with dumplings
Manduguk, Korean Dumpling Soup

At least he’s not crammed underneath the bench at the back, by the lockers. Drin has seen him napping or writing out score changes in the strange little room fairly often, but he rarely intrudes on it. He knows how tough it is to go back to sleep once awakened in a spot that ought to be a secure hiding place, and clearly isn’t.

Dance is reacting like a vet, not like a theater person. So Drin treats him like a vet: He puts down his folded jacket on a chair just inside, closes the door, and leaves him alone to nap. Heads off the intrusive and curious, even, who might see him there. He’s developing a bit of an odd possessive streak, he realizes, about their peculiar Concertmaster.

Of course Dance returns the jacket to Drin that same afternoon. He puts it down on the chair next to Drin, thanking him quietly, and looking at him for a moment, solemn. Then he says, “I do not have a crick in my neck now. My neck thanks you also,” and he gives a wry smile.

“It’s a privilege,” Drin tells him, and means it. “So did Maestro Young pick the hall for the date next month?”

“He did,” Dance says, looking away.

“And you think it’s a mistake,” Drin says.

Dance shrugs. “Pick your battles,” he says in flat bitter quote, shocking Drin. Then his gaze jerks to something beyond Drin. He looks upward, face half-hidden by a loose wing of hair, all the lines of his jaw fierce. He braces out one foot, provoked by whatever he is watching on the second floor, somewhere up there by the main office. His whole body changes, mantling like a big cat in a rage. A tiny, muted, involuntary throat-noise comes out: He’s hissing like a boiled kettle.

“Easy there,” Drin murmurs, not moving.

The eyes come back to him, gold as platters. The pupils are mere dots. A breath, two breaths. The pupils dial open and warm brown floods into his irises as if shadows could be poured like coffee. “Yes,” Dance says at last. But he doesn’t blink.

Drin hears a murmur dropped from upstairs, the rustle of somebody’s dress, the civilized, muffled honk that Amalia gives when she’s using a tissue in public. He saw her up there twenty minutes ago, marching across the second floor from the elevator, she slammed the office door as if going into battle. The Metro’s First Cellist wouldn’t thank either of them for causing a scene, whatever happened up there to bring out the tissues.

“She okay?” Drin asks, barely breathing out the sounds.

Dance looks up behind his hair, watches his friend march back noisily to the elevator. “Yes.” He takes a deep breath, and his shoulders ease down. “Yes. Thanking you.”

Drin gives a crooked smile. “So long as you do me the same favor, if I get to snorting and pawing the ground too much.”

“Snorting?” Dance says.

“Like I’m going to bull-charge right through something irritating.”

Dance gives a quirky half-smile. “Indeed that is sounding very… big. Big like cartoon holes in walls.”

Drin blows out a deep breath, and chuckles. “Yeah, that could be embarrassing.”

“Are you wishing a piece of advice?” Dance says.

Drin nods, delighted.

“Warn Amalia before you are picking up the fights for her.” Wry, self-deprecating, the full wattage of a grin flashes past, blinding Drin. The Concertmaster sketches a salute, turns away, and hurries off toward the elevator doors, gone before Drin can move.

“Waaa? What just happened there?” Drin mutters, blinking.

After Hours

Rain is coming.  The humidity sends the odor of sage gusting into the crowded club, drafting off the ravines above the big parking lot. Chaparral oils mix with skunk and tar.  Perfumes and smokes cling on the sweaty clothes of patrons returning from the patio.  Drin feels like his brain is all twitching dog-nose.  He holds his breath sometimes.

Audio signals are turned up high too.  Customers are playing Beer Pong.  Speakers shake the walls with a retro mix of piano and sax and drums.

“Yo’ mama talking trash…let me tell you what we’re gonna do… we gonna have some fun, c’mon, let the good times roll…”

While the band is on break, the bartender has no time to chat.  He’s a machine chopping ripe melon, coconut, citrus peel, tomatoes, chilis.  Wait staff hand out big daiquiris by the trayful; the smell of fruit is sticky sweet, acid, almost brassy.  Too much on an empty stomach.

Drin sips at a chunky tumbler, retreating into the warm brown-sugar complexities of Tennessee whiskey.  It’s dimly lit by the side door.  Useless to sit waiting like some spoiled prince, expecting homage.  But his pride kicks at sending a business card backstage.

There’s no sound. Just the smell of the man, a familiar dusty, piney odor.

He turns.

Dance was looking tired when he left the Metro’s doors four nights ago.  Now, he’s as sweaty as a bluesman, with dark hollows around his eyes.  In that setting, the irises glow, they’re so pale.

“So sad, no yelling boo at our Mister Drin, who is too quick for us.”  Dance gives a big sigh, sticking out his lower lip like a kid.  Looking for the laugh.

So Drin gives it to him, but he isn’t fooled.  Those pale eyes don’t blink.

“Was it a good trip?” Dance asks.

Drin offers his hand.  “Oh yeah, the trip was okay, but I’m damn glad to be back.”

“We are too.  So glad our Mister Drin came tonight, we were not expecting—”

The handshake Dance gives him is dry, hot, all callouses.  Up close, Dance’s smell is downright medicinal, even odder than usual.  Greek retsina, mushrooms, vetiver.  Bay laurel thrown on a campfire.  Mixed pleasure, that–the last few fishing trips had too many noisy guys from work, not enough quiet to sleep, not enough river time.  Burning rabbit smells just like it did in the dry pines of Afghanistan.

“Did I miss your first set?”

“Yes, but just in time for our second, and we will have another.”  Trickles of water run off Dance’s brows, down his neck.

“Something to drink?” Drin asks, rising from his seat.

The man hesitates, nods.  He surveys the crowd while he rolls his shoulders in his black jacket.  Then he stretches his arms, knots and unknots his hands.  He arches backward, stretching his spine in the dim light, and his long hair hangs low, nearly knee-level.  When he pulls up again, he tightens and loosens his abs like a dancer.  The belly ripples look weird on a guy in a dress shirt.

Takes him back in time, that does.  Drin sees clumsy tourists, skinny limbo dancers, somebody laughing over music, dreadlocked hair whipping around.  A boat rocks under him while he is puking profound drunkenness into thorny brush.  Tin drums keep panging away rhythms in memory.

Chen Kun from fashion shoot with actress Zhou-Xun
moving

He waits it out, feeling the sudden ache from a couple scars on his shins.  Damn flashbacks.  But at least he hasn’t picked up any new blanks since the hospital, after his motorcycle wreck.  Plus, zero desire to get wasted again.

Dance has his jaw muscles clenched like a boxer.  Drin follows him, watchful.  The crowd clears away, eyeing Dance.  A little pool of space opens around them both.  Yeah, something happened tonight.

Dance thanks the bartender for a tumbler of water.  He mops his jaw with a cheap bandanna, slides it down his throat into the collar of his shirt, looking up at Drin without blinking, and Drin begins to feel a smile stretch his jaw–

But there’s a stir at the main door.  Somebody drops a tray.

Drin glances down, surprised.  Dance the martial artist has pivoted close, right at Drin’s elbow, poised with one arm up.  The man has his knees bent, the bandanna is wrapped around his knuckles on the back fist.

Drin hopes devoutly that he didn’t miss some cue.

The bartender has his head up too, searching over the crowd.  After a hung moment, he flicks a sheepish gaze at Dance.  Dance straightens again, nods back.  “It can get rowdy.  We should be alert for assault on our Mister Drin, who has money, and looks like it.”

“I do?” Drin says, untangling one hand from his loose shirt tail.

“It is no good, our getting distracted.”

“Well, I had my hand on my wallet.  How about you?”

That quirked smile.  “Our Mister Drin has been drinking in some rough joints?”

“Yeah.  Some bad enough where I’d keep both my hands up, ready to use, and to hell with the wallet.  Don’t worry about me.  But thanks, I appreciate it–” he’s interrupted, there’s some loud woman shoving between them, staggering, and a crowd is following her.

Dance twists, hands up, and the musician’s back smacks solidly into Drin, slams them both into the bar with a thump.  Dance shoves off again with sheer bunched force.  The muscles make quite an impression on Drin’s body. Not quite the sort of contact Drin had anticipated, getting bruised by the man’s ass.

His own fault, that’s what he gets for losing track of the general surroundings.

Dance diverts the leader away from Drin.  The woman’s hand is groping after Dance, flailing as if she’s about to fall down. Her flapping papers make the musician flinch, and then her car keys go flying, but Dance snatches them from the air and returns them to her.  More gusting laughter.  “Goodness, don’t you half smell of sawmill.  Takes me right back, my daddy was a sawyer all his life– hey Rose, come meet my favorite fiddler!”

She’s everybody’s loud, laughing buddy on a mission to introduce her friends right behind her.

All that effort gets a flicker of cool performer’s decision:  No.  Not for you.

Engerman was right about Dance, about his peculiar anti-charisma.  But it’s a choice– Drin can see it happen.  Dance goes stiff as a cat in a bathtub. Nobody’s ever been quick enough to see him do it.

The ladies react to it.  Only one of them shakes his hand, and briefly at that.  The nearest lady refuses to get any closer, her face closed down in the multicolored bar light.  The others draw back, restless.  Now they want to meet somebody who’s a lot more cuddly and warm, somebody who knows how to flirt.  Somebody who doesn’t… smell like that.

Ask them what that is, and the other women couldn’t tell you. Maybe something silent.

Drin thinks, something that doesn’t blink.

The crowd of women shift away to the bassist a few seats farther down the bar, who is much more laid-back and unruffled than Dance, and obviously doesn’t mind being engulfed in extravagantly bosomy hugs.  It’s quite a parade.

Drin finds himself halfway humming the words of another old pop song, “Money for nothin’, and your chicks for free…” which certainly dates his pop references.

“Yeah, that’s all his own hair, that faggot’s a millionaire,” Dance’s voice murmurs the next verse, startling him.  Jesus, sliding right up at his elbow, no warning.  Blink in this crowd, and you’ve lost him.

Drin chuckles, feeling a flush starting up his hairline.

The musician glances up at Drin, murmurs an apology.  Fresh lines of sweat run down the muscles jumping in his jaw.  Dance looks away, shrugs heavily in his jacket, which was never made for moving like that.

“It’s hot in here.  I could hold your jacket, if you like,” Drin offers, hand up.

Dance is a blur, out of reach, pure reflexes.  Then he flushes dark.

Drin rests his hands flat on the bar:  No grabbing, okay?

The musician looks at that, and then up at Drin.  The man’s irises go warm and dark.  He gives a grimace, pulls out a black elastic loop.  “Some night we go looking for great big scissors,” Dance growls, shooting a look around the bar while he twists up his hair.

“Oh, that’d be a shame,” Drin says.

Dance’s gaze jerks back to him.  Nervy, poised just out of reach.

“We should consult folks like Amalia, get somebody good to cut it right for you,” Drin advises.

Dance’s irises pale out again to a gold color.  Oh, he hates that idea.

Well, it is a threat.  Last time, Amalia scolded Dance and trimmed split ends off into an office trash can, right in front of Drin.  He let her do it, too, astonishing them all.  Like a cross teddybear, she thumped him.  “And don’t you go weird and stubborn on me, either!”

There, in the back-bar mirror, is Dance’s blank face, sticking out his jaw like a pack mule.

Drin doesn’t dare smile.  He just shrugs.  “But you gotta ask her yourself.  I’m not gonna tattle on you.  Not my job, tattling to Amalia.”

Dance shakes his head.  Then he looks up at Drin’s image in the mirror, and there’s a crinkle lifting the corners of the man’s eyes.  The wry smile is almost too quick to catch.  His irises are brown again when he ducks his head.

He’s pretty good at hiding that color change trick, I wonder why? Drin thinks.  Maybe Dance knows that nobody really wants to see it.

The music on the speakers softens, allowing easier conversation.  A woman’s voice growls a rich baritone over horns.  “I never met a man anything like you in the universe… you must be from heaven…”

“Nice.”  Drin nods at the speakers.

dark brown upright piano
Bon Temps

The musician cocks his head, listening.  “We are hearing the blues and jazz vocalist, Annie Sampson.  Our bartender likes her.  We just say he has the picky ear.  He gives printouts to music reps.  They argue.  He has no soda-pop divas, he will tell you.”

“Will Annie Sampson be the next big thing?”

A shrug.  “The lady teaches.”  The musician gives that wry, one-sided smile again as he looks Drin over, rumpled hair to loafers.  His gaze skips around so fast it is impossible to tell what he thinks of the casual Hawaiian shirt, Drin’s faded old jeans.  Then the speakers get loud again.

At the first chords, Drin starts to grin.  He nods his head, tilts his body stiffly back and forth.  ZZ Top.  When he glances over, the bartender is grinning right back at them, and he’s tilting the same way, dancing and still chopping away at pineapple.

“…black shades, white gloves, lookin’ sharp and lookin’ for love…  They come runnin’ just as fast as they can, coz every girl crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed man…”

Dance shakes his head at the bartender, who just grins.  There’s a quirk to Dance’s mouth, looking up at Drin, but the line of his shoulders has relaxed.

A little trust, Drin thinks, pleased out of all proportion.  Another time, Drin might have dared a touch.  But no, the bartender is watching them closely enough as it is.  Give the guy space in public, he’s a performer, and he needs the money.  Those mutable eyes, too, that brings up alarm bells–but they’ve gone dark, smiling, nothing odd to see here.

“Some of the ladies here told me they liked the bit where you and the vocalist in red had a duet,” Drin says, rather than ask how many times Dance has stepped into somebody else’s fight here, the same way he does at the Metro.  Or if he’d fended off some kind of violence tonight.

Dance nods.  “Very kind.”  He takes two slow steps closer, giving Drin plenty of time to respond.  Apparently he wants something, in spite of muley looks.

He puts his hands flat next to Drin’s hands, stretching out his fingers, comparing his right to Drin’s left.  His fingers are longer than Drin’s are. His palm spreads wider.  The knuckles are scarred pale, the callouses on his fingertips are cracked, the nails ragged, as if he hasn’t had time to take care of anything.

That reinforces the stubbornness burning in the man’s tired face.  He’s not going away until he talks to Drin about whatever it is.  That’s irrationally flattering, too.  What’s odd is how close he is, how still he stands.

It’d be so easy to rest his hand on Dance’s, but no.  Not tonight.  Not with Dance as jumpy as this, in an insecure location.  Instead, Drin finds his glass, sips the last of his drink.  “Constancia was her name?”

“Yes, I can get you her card if you like–”

Drin shakes his head.  “No, no, it’s not like that, but thank you.  I’m sure it was really from the way you supported her singing.  The way you always do.”

Dance’s hands pull back, clench together, muscles bunch between the tendons.  “Thank you.”

Drin watches the hands relax a little bit. He says, “So when do I get to have some of that legendary chilihead hot barbecue chicken?”

The hands spread open on the bar, fingers relaxing.  “Oh, so people are telling our Mister Drin some stories, yes?”

“Threats, more like!”

“We give you a hint,” Dance says.  A little finger taps his nose.  “The pork is hotter.  We are making those pans first, so it goes marinating longer.  We call it galbi in Korean, I am using the sauce for dak galbi, that is chicken in hot marinade.”

“Galbi, is that how you say it?  Well, I don’t qualify for chilihead, but I gotta check out both of those.  Is that fundraiser next month?”

“In two weeks,” Dance says.

“If you tell me when you want to get the stuff, I’ll tag along and pay for it, help you move it into storage.  Maybe get that prosciutto you like.  Okay by you?”

Dance nods.  The hands go into a knot, huddled.  Perhaps they are consulting each other.

Just for a moment Drin’s skeptical working brain is drowned out by all the bits crowing, yes yes! But his dour auditor half surfaces long enough to say, Oh come now.  Something is up.  You know there’s something else.  Besides the eyes.  The hands.  The resiny odor.  What is it?

The happy bits fight back.  Yeah, maybe this is a guy with things to hide.  But it’s not like he gets a lot of time away from the Metro.  What possible mischief could he get up to?

Drin’s stomach growls.  Okay, maybe some of that dry, brushy smell is from the man’s cooking.  It makes Drin curious about what he’s using for soap.  Meeting those intelligent eyes, it’s too easy to see those hands sliding soap bubbles all over sleek skin… Drin can only strive to keep that out of his face.

Hastily, Drin asks, “You have a butcher you like?  Good cold storage?”

Dance nods, not looking at him.  The fingernails tap jittery rhythms on the bar.

Offer Dance money and hellfire, look at him scowl.  The guy is syncopating to the canned music differently on each hand while he’s thinking.  Men, generally, are forthright about what they want.  This guy is shy, buttoned back.

“Money can’t buy me love–” Drin hums the old Beatles words over music with the same time signature, drumming his index fingers on the bar.  “Caaan’t buy me luuurve–”

There’s the smile coming, coaxed out as Drin goes on.

closeup Hyun Bin
closeup face of actor Hyun Bin

“Money can’t buy me luuuuve–” Drin does drumrolls with his forefingers, clicking his tongue on his teeth, and finishes by chiming the water glass.

Dance is laughing.  “Our Mister Drin is so bad!”

“Oh, I am.  Blame it on my mispent youth.  We had to put the drum kit out in the garage, drove the neighbors crazy.”  He wipes off his forehead on his sleeve.  It’s hot in here.  “Okay, what’s bugging you about the whole deal?”

Dance taps the bar twice with a thick, rough thumbnail.  “Cooking nine kilos– yes, twenty pounds of meat last year, and we ran out.  Also, no big gear for cooking enough.”

Drin nods.  “Need twice that much just from the membership roster.  Caterer would cost more, I checked on that.  Find yourself good cooking gear, make me a list.  I’ll ask somebody on the Metro Board to check my donation papers.  Can’t ask Bud Innes, he’s in my direct chain of supervision at work, and that’s a conflict of interest.”

Dance nods gravely.  “You will have to explain it to them first.”

“Oh,  hell. Ever since Jenners left, nobody on the Board has any background–”

The man’s smile widens.  “We were hearing from a small bird that our newest member, Evans, has tax background.  Federal law enforcement.  Nobody said that in public, but he says very little, yes?”

“Wow.  That’s some bird.  Was it Robert who said that?”

“Ahh, Robert.  Well, these days he says what Bud Innes wishes will be heard,” Dance says, with those unflinching dark eyes.  “Our little bird says look for questioning from our new Mister Evans at the budget meeting next week about lost papers.  Maybe making Maestro Young yell at them.  At us, too.”  He shrugs.

This, Drin thinks, is what makes successful concertmasters.  That sliding angle of riposte that diverts you onto something more important than the original question.  Here it comes. “Lost papers? What do you mean, lost?”

“Yesterday evening after performance, big fourth floor mess.”

Drin stares into the direct warning.  The hair is standing up on his neck. “Oh, crap, don’t gimme that look.  What happened?”

“Broken water pipe at the top of the building.  Fans are now running to dry the office.  After we are speaking with Metro’s insurance company, we call our nice office ladies.  They are upset about their computers and puppy pictures.”

The pictures? On the walls? Some leak!”  Drin rakes his hand through his hair, trying to think.  “We can get duplicate billing records from the invoicing companies. I was just making audit file copies, those files got put away safe, that’s some help.  What about the storage boxes, the music scores, are those okay?”

“Only a few damages.  Pipe is off at other end, above.”

He catches the man’s solemn expression.  “Oh, dammit, what else?”

“Drill marks, somebody cutting the pipe.  We hear the plumber reporting this for stupid unskilled vandalism.”

“And you have an idea who did it,” Drin says grimly.  No wonder the guy looks tired.

Nod.

“Let me guess.  If you say the name, everybody will think you’re making it up.  Trying to get somebody in trouble.”

Dance tips his chin up, closes his eyes.  “Well, we are smelling this, but we think nobody will believe, especially if this nose is saying so.”  He taps it.

Drin snaps, “I believe you.  I completely believe you have a nose that tells you things like that.  Tonight, it makes perfect sense.  Wish I’d got back sooner.  Dammit, nobody called me about that.”

Dance spreads his hands wide.  “Because we know our Mister Drin is away on his trip with many meetings.  Apologizing deeply–”

Drin peers at him.  “Are you okay?”

Dance nods.  “We are good.  What did they call you about? These persons called you about something else?”  Dance has a truly grim tone there, the man’s shoulders are bracing up for more bad news.

Drin rattles melting cubes in his glass.  “Mid-week, Young demanded I fly back the same day. I should talk the Board into confirming that big hall for his fancy downtown concert.”

“After their management sued us for defaulting last season?” Whoever said Dance has no grasp of politics just wasn’t following the volleys fast enough.

“Him and his handshake deals. He didn’t remember the lawsuit.”  Drin shrugs.  “Hey, sorry, didn’t he get the rescheduling note? No quorum.”

Dance nods. “Too many Board members or their proxies are sick.  So many are in their eighties, half are in the hospital.”

Drin sighs. “Well, they can get a few things done.” They both know how long it takes to get a written review of contracts by the Metro’s volunteer attorneys.

Dance nods.  “Thanking you. Sadly, the nice drunk lady used all our time.  We must be going.  Also, we very much like leaving our jacket safe with you, Mister Drin.”  He puts one finger down, ever so gently, on the back of Drin’s wrist.

Drin can’t stop the smile.

But the man is gone, retreating.  A shrug of his body and he’s flinging over his cheap jacket, not even checking if Drin has caught it.  Distracting, but Drin can’t miss the outline of the prick standing hard against the man’s thigh.  Before he can drag his eyes off that, Dance turns away and he is vanishing into the gloom.  Running away.

Drin blinks at the backstage door.  Tells himself not to be silly.  Hard-ons happen, set off by all kinds of things, even the threat of fighting.  The flare of amusement warms his belly more than the whiskey did.

He looks at the jacket.  It’s damp inside.  That makes his dick throb.  Forget dignity, he’s no better than the rest of the groupies.  He perches on a bar stool and drapes the musician’s damp jacket open across his knee to let it dry out. Talk about physicality in performance–it’s made of cheap stain-resistant plastic fiber, grinding away in months of performances.  The lining is coming apart.  A big shred of it comes away in his hand.  Most musicians would refuse to take it off and show it to him, afraid to reveal poverty.  He knows Dance will crack a joke about it.

Kind of touching, sad and funny, like discovering that the beautiful actress is wearing pink flipflops under her fancy gown.  It makes him want to drag Dance to a decent tailor, and spend indecent amounts of money on him.  Which is ridiculous.

Expect nothing, he told himself sternly when he first got in the car tonight.  Dance didn’t ask him to come.  It was Engerman who told him the quintet would be here tonight.

Now he’s holding a wet jacket, smiling like a fool.  He strokes the lining into place, finding spots of sticky sap, red clay stains.  Yeah, the kind of marks you get from fighting, rolling around in the brush, ducking guns, something.  Which makes his inner auditor just keep getting more wound up.  It wants to find out more about those eyes, and the odd hands–do the kind of digging that can get unpleasant. His nose doesn’t care, or his balls. He sniffs a shred of lining, puts the scrap in his own shirt pocket.

If he was courting an opera diva, would he get silly over a ratty corset?  Well, yeah.  Who wouldn’t want to see what’s under Dance’s suit?  Get his mouth onto all that warm skin, feel those muscles tighten.  He wants to give pleasure, he wants to see extravagant things happen.  Get that line of tension in the guy’s jawline to relax.

Dangerous impulse, he knows.  Simpler to push Dance into a restroom wall, make things clear.  Stop talking. Hell, if it was nothing but a weekend romp, he’d be happy to give the man anything he asks for.  But that won’t happen.  Dance might warn him, might ask for help in answering Evans.  But this?  No, thank you, and Dance will coolly extract himself.

Damn shame, too.  He’s been wanting a calendar shot of Dance licking cream off those long fingers, with that laughing expression in his eyes.  Get those shoulders into a clingy shirt that catches light on every last contour.  Show how those eyes shift color when he’s provoked.

After all, what better way to hide things than right out in plain sight?  And isn’t it nice to learn that Dance has a helluva method for breaking bad news?

Vandalism, hell.

The torn piece of lining might as well be burning a hole through his pocket.  His dick is certainly trying to.

He orders another drink during the next set, while the dutiful auditor inside is tallying up more questions. Incredible that the Metro has never checked on any of their full-time employees or their tutors for the music outreach school programs.  Never checked on criminal convictions. How could they fail to fulfill one of the most basic requirements for insurance?

Watching Dance play perfectly ordinary pop music is not reassuring the Doubting Thomas inside,  the part of him who keeps revising the research lists. Hell, after a routine due-diligence employment workup on the man, now he suspects he hasn’t even begun.

It’s all tossed to confetti bits when the band shifts positions.

singer actor Chen Kun holding mike
At the mike

Dance rests the violin on one knee, and picks up the microphone, and sings.  Something by the Pogues, nostalgic lyrics with plangent accompaniment from a penny whistle and the pianist;
“And so we walked when day was dawning
The small birds sang, the leaves were falling
Where we once watched the rowboats landing
By the broad majestic Shannon.”

Of course he doesn’t have an Irish accent, but he articulates crisply, his meter is just fine.  He manages to sing tenor descants without going nasal, as if it’s no strain at all, there’s lung capacity to spare, it’s perfectly easy to hit his fast notes.  Not the kind of whooping gospel pyrotechnics reportedly committed by their earlier alto soloist in a red dress.  No, not a diva.  Just the kind of voice you’d hear purring from the next pillow, maybe, if you were a very lucky man.

“…take my hand and dry your tears babe…”

Drin can feel the tingling down to his toes when Dance lifts his chin and looks around the room, nodding to the applause, flashing that white grin when his eyes meet Drin’s.

Then he’s handing the microphone to the pianist, who sings the next one, and passes it to the saxophone.  Each musician sings something different, playing off one another’s lyrics like conversational jazz, until the crowd gets restless.

They pick up their instruments to play “Stormy Weather.” Dance’s violin goes cool and regretful, that remote voice in the fog, fading to smoke.  Farewell in a film noir, perhaps.  Time to take their bows.

bass and sax player in smoky spotlight
“…you went away, the blues walked in and met me…”

The sight of the musicians walking away makes Drin’s chest squeeze, old aches pull sharply all across his old burn scars.  Vandalism, hellfire.  He should have gone to last night’s performance, he knew it at the time.  Catch an earlier flight back.  Something.  They needed him there, picking up the pieces, helping Dance lock it up, get some damn proof what was going on.  He can’t stand the idea that he wasn’t in place.  He’s never been able to abide that feeling.

Ask the Bartender

It’s the music, or two whiskies on an empty stomach, or unrequited desire, but he can’t settle.  He returns from the can to find the place emptying rapidly.  He knows how much Dance can’t afford to lose the jacket he’s clutching, and still he’s halfway convinced Dance won’t be back to retrieve it.

The bassist departs with two of the eager fan ladies; the drummer meets his equally scroungy brother at the side door; and the sax player is chatting up a well-dressed couple.  Drin stands and waits.  Stubborn, yeah.  If it’s a test of devotion, he’s past caring what it reveals.  At the Metro, if Dance is late coming out front, it’s just because he’s a helpful guy.  Always shepherding things.  But that tense moment earlier keeps coming back, and Drin hopes there isn’t a fight.

The bartender pulls him a tumbler of water.  Pauses his mopping up to answer a phone briefly.  Collecting empty glasses, he says to Drin, “Them singing, that was new.”

Drin nods, perches on a barstool.  “I’m not sure they’ll try it again, if folks didn’t like it enough.”

The bartender shrugs.  “Takes all types.  I like a change, myself.  One night–” he grins reminiscently, racking glasses, “–you’ll never believe this, but one night the bass guy brought in this Carlos Santana-type guitar and amps, they did a whole set.  Black Magic Woman– man, that was good.  Well, Dance did this tribute with that crazy guitar on Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and Joan Jett and Frampton and Clapton and Jerry Garcia–” he pauses for some brief, intense air guitar gestures.  “Hey, it made you hear what they musta heard live, back then maybe.   I mean, these guys ain’t none of them Clapton, but hand him strings, Dance does okay.  He claims he’s not so great on banjo, but hell, couldn’t tell it by me.”

“Oh, yeah, wish I got to see that.” The bartender’s statement jars on him, timewise.  The muscular guy with tats behind the bar looks solid as a bouncer, but he’s only mid-thirties.  Still, that’s completely ancient by the standards of the local music scene.  “I didn’t know he could sing. Or got groupies grabbing him.”

The bartender grins.  “Hey, don’t worry about Dance.  He won’t leave Constancia back there by herself on a bad night.  She did a great job on her solos tonight–there’s a chick who puts on her heels and kicks ass instead of lying down and crying.  But we all got our break points, you know?”

Drin makes a wry face, lifts his water glass in tribute.  “Here’s to kickass ladies, and the friends who help them strap the load back together and keep going.”

The bartender flicks up two fingers in salute.  “Ahhhh, tough chicks like that always manage, in the end.  But nobody covers shit for Dance.  Never goes the other way, you know?  Funny how that works.”

“Guess he’s used to it.”  Drin stacks drink glasses, hands them over.

The bartender bends with a grunt, filling the dishwasher.  “Sweet guy, but you gotta watch him.  Those crazy-ass paratroops, right?  They get off on fallin’ into all kindsa mess and obliterating everything in sight.  Don’t care what size they come, little ‘uns are just as bad.”

“Worse,” Drin agrees, handing over trash.

“Last Friday, we got this fuckin’ crackhead bunch screaming outside.  Dance just bent this guy’s shotgun into their steering wheel.  No kidding, in a knot. Then he curled up back here with me, gone fetal.  I said cool by me, leave him, he can have that corner all night.  The cops give up.  It’s a howling full moon, fleet’s in town, the place looks like a Navy goat locker, we got tourists pickin’ fights.”

Drin hands him more glasses.

“Midnight, I finally start callin’ Dance’s people.  Christ, the roommate’s outta town with his cello buddy, his patron guys at the Metro are out, fuckin’ hell, his damn conductor hung up on me. Nobody else has the fuckin’ time of day for him.  Us vets know that kinda shit, fuck whatever the damn uniform was.”  He points.  “I’m gonna call you, next time.  You’re one of his Metro guys, right?  I thought so. You coulda talked him down in a coupla hours, you’re that good.”

“Please do.  I’d fly back if I’d known Dance was freaking.  Call if you get other vets who need it, there’s my volunteer thing.  You’d be doing me a favor,” Drin says, handing over a card.  The guy adds the number into his phone on the spot.

brown flooring made of wine crates
flooring of recycled wine crates

He wonders, though, what the police report looks like.  Dance is too young to be a veteran, surely, even when those kids have to do mandatory South Korean service–but Drin doesn’t argue.  The idea that the diminutive musician was a paratroop veteran sounds absurd by beefy Western standards.  But he believes it after chatting with folks at the dojo where Dance works out.  Hooray for due diligence.  “So, you got out on a medical, Sarge?”

“Feet first, the only way they let us go.  Truck bomb in the nice safe Green Zone, halfway through my third re-up.  But no bitterness, right?  Where’d you get yours?”

“Burns, in Afghanistan.  Just after the Russians gave up and left a mess.”
“Talk about advance work!”  The bartender wiggles his left hand, which moves stiffly and is missing part of the little finger.  “Can’t stand up all night, but I can still play keyboards.”

Drin lifts his water glass in salute.  He drags up another stool to hold Dance’s jacket.  The bartender abandons all pretence of cleaning, folds his arms on the bartop, pulls up a stool on his own side, and starts talking.  “So you’re thinking, what silly meathead would work a bar in a cheap Navy town like this, huh?  Well, my sister married this redneck mechanic kid outta South Carolina, he gets to be a Navy chief, right, and–”

Several funny stories later, Drin is resigned to getting locked out as the last one left standing, reeking of smoke and his own sweat. He’s laughing at a deployment story from the bartender when something breathes at his shoulder, and he swings around with a jolt, arm flying up.

“Oh, we are sorry, please, no wish for startling our Mister Drin, we are thinking you heard us laughing right there–” Dance says, holding up open hands.  This time, there wasn’t even a scuff on a squeaky floorboard to warn Drin.  Dance bows several times, that rapid little bob that means he’s agitated.  “Please not to worry, I have not forgot you.  Our apologies, again please, for taking so long.”

“Oh!  I thought you’d come in this door, over here.  It’s okay, Dance.  No, really, don’t worry,” Drin says, clutching the jacket.  “So you got things sorted?”

“One of our ladies needed help on these sad home problems–it was not pretty, we all think she deserves better treatment but–” and Dance gives a flying-away gesture with one hand, shrugging.

“Yeah,” Drin says, looking him over.  “So do you.”

diaper safety pins with animal heads
diaper safety pins

Dance is wearing the worst rehearsal sweat outfit ever.  The pants sag with new muddy streaks and old stains.  The ragged collar of the sweatshirt has been ripped downward recently.  Half his chest shows under a motley collection of safety pins and plastic-headed diaper pins.  One of them is a smiling duck’s head.  Of course he’ll patch the shirt and go on wearing it to rehearsals.  There’s a dark bruise on his skin under the duck, mid-chest.

“Was that a present from Constancia’s husband, brother, or father?”

The bartender snorts.  “Um, yeah.  Plus a former boyfriend, all Tijuana cops.  Ugly shits swung by here twice tonight.  We only have a bouncer two nights.  Thanks for sorting it, Dance.”

Dance looks down at himself, sighs.  “We are so loving this very glamorous life,” he says, adopting a pompous expression and waving his arm in an imperious gesture that is too much like the current conductor to be accidental.  “Ow,” he adds, and grimaces while he delicately readjusts a safety pin that has flopped open and stuck him.

“You did that on purpose,” Drin says, laughing.

Dance gives him the pained face.  “Not that part.  Ow, ow.  We give up on that bending pin.”

The bartender rummages in a drawer.  “That’s what you get, borrowing pins from Constancia.  Huh.  No, we’re out.  You’re on your own.”

“So parents still use diapers that pin, these days?” Drin says, fascinated.

Dance nods.  “Well, green progressive types, yes.  Waitress moms here take pity on Constancia and me.  We get lectures on solid waste diversion.  Oh yes, and the–erm– impact of different vegetarian diets.”  His nose wrinkles into a wincing expression that suggests all kinds of horrors.

“You’re kidding me again, aren’t you?” Drin pleads.

“Only a little bit,” the bartender says grimly.  “All together now–fuuuck!”

Dance flaps both his hands in droll imitation of the bartender.  “Does it help?”

“No,” Drin says firmly.

Dance sighs, looking down at the silly pins.  “So much for making a good impression on our Mister Drin.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that.  I’ve heard you play.”

“Well, you could take that several different ways,” the bartender says dryly.

“Take it only as a compliment.”

Dance bows, and shifts a cloth shopping bag in one hand and his instrument case in the other.  He looks like he’s used to going home hungry and tired.

“You got any food allergies?  Lactose intolerant or anything?”

Dance shakes his head again, looking puzzled.  More of his hair is hanging loose.

singer actor Chen Kun
after a long night

Drin pats the empty bar stool, and beckons to the bartender.  “I know it’s late, but while he’s waiting, can you make my buddy a nice big milkshake?  His choice, my treat.”

The bartender grins, showing gold front teeth.  “We can do you some real nice pineapple tonight, Dance.  Gotta use it up, it’s really ripe.”  He cups one hand at his mouth, points at Dance, stage-whispers, “His favorite.”

“May we take our jacket now, Mister Drin?” Dance has his belongings piled together under his stool, his hands solemnly folded on the counter before him.  His height is all legs.  Sitting down, turning those big dark eyes up at them, he looks absurdly young.

Drin clutches it tighter.  “No, my hostage.  You don’t get it back yet.  Not until you get all of that milkshake inside you.  The whole thing.”

“Ahh, the mean ice cream monster will make me eat something delicious,” Dance says, nodding.  The outer corners of his eyes are crinkling upward.  He licks his lips broadly, like a kid might, gazing up at Drin, who remembers exactly what it feels like to get all the air knocked out of his lungs.

The bartender chops pineapple, shakes his head.  “They just so cruel like that, ice cream monsters are.”

“Big meanie,” Dance says, looking up at Drin with his eyes laughing.  Drin has no idea why people think the man doesn’t know how to flirt.

“Yeah, you better believe it,” Drin growls, as deep as he can.  He gives them a huge scowly face, making big silly clawhands.  “Rarr!  Ice crrream, Rarr!”

Dance laughs, flapping his hand at Drin.

“Rarrr?” Drin backs off, acting puzzled.  He pitches his voice at different notes, tries out different monster, piratey voices.  “Polly wanna cracker, rarrr?” Drin says, way up in his nose. The falsetto voice has Dance leaning into the bar, laughing.

“Rarr, matey– okay, gimme a minute, ” Drin says, dropping his hands to pull out his wallet.  Clenching his knees together into Dance’s jacket is excusable then.  And it hides things.

The bartender glops icy balls into a metal mix can.  “We gotta get you here on Pirate Night to emcee the charity contest, Mister Drin, cause I sure ain’t lettin’ you compete, not a pro like you.”  The bartender shoves the metal shake container up into the mixing beater.

Drin puts a bill down on the bar, and waits for the noise to subside.

“Rarr,” he says, in a flat ordinary voice, and he’s pleased when Dance is cracking up again. Dance flaps one hand at him again, leaning on the bar.  It takes his whole body when he laughs. This time he isn’t flirting, it’s just the sound of a young boy in a state of delight.  Maybe it’s the sound of exhaustion.  Everything’s hysterically funny to him.  Just look at him, absolutely calm, not even making silly faces, and he’s laughing.

The bartender pours out the shake, puts a tall glass in front of each man. “Yours has just a touch of booze, Mister Drin, but yours don’t, Dance.”

Dance leans in, halfway closing his eyes, and he works that straw.  It’s a thick mixture.  But he doesn’t have to run a ridiculously long tongue along it like that. Then he smiles, and goes back to sucking on it.  Dance’s hollowed cheeks are nothing like a little boy’s.  “Oh yes, it is excellent.  Very ripe pineapple.”

“It is,” Drin agrees, clutching his knees into the jacket.

There’s just a whisper of some rum in Drin’s drink, just enough to add some warmth, not much alcohol.  He can feel the cooling drink spread through his whole system.  His scalp prickles, and he’s aware of how hot and sweaty he has been feeling, now that the drink is relieving it.  He and the bartender exchange more service stories, trying to get Dance to laugh.

Dance is lagging by the time he’s halfway through his pineapple drink, leaning on his hand.  There are more purplish shadows, unfamiliar lines, around his eyes.

Drin asks him, “Why did you change into sweats when it’s so hot in here?”

“Oh, when we are cooling down after, it is like running.  We are always getting the shivers.”

“Do you have a ride home?”

Dance touches him on the forearm so lightly it’s barely there.  “Not to worry, our roommate is picking us up right here, so convenient.  But is our Mister Drin okay to drive?”

“I will be, if I wait and see you off first.”

“You are very kind,” Dance says.  He gestures, and the bartender puts a couple of tumblers of water up for them.  Dance pulls his shoulders back, straightens up, takes a deep breath.  Performing, even if Drin is his only audience.
Drin laughs.  “And you are very patient!”

“We are trying, yes.  My roommate says we are very trying sometimes.”  He releases the widening grin when Drin laughs.   “Would our Mister Drin like hearing our poor six-year-old jokes?”

“Do you mean jokes you learned six years ago?” Drin asks.  He’s got nephews, he knows how this stuff goes.  “Will there be snails? Promise?”

“Oh yes.”  Dance cracks his knuckles slowly and impressively, and starts unreeling a respectable catalog.  There are some fun translations of Korean school experiences.  There are pickle jokes.  Dance claims pickling is very big in Korean cuisine.

large lidded stoneware jars
stoneware crocks and jars

Drin’s ribs ache a bit by the time the musician has, at last, finished making slurpy noises with that straw in the empty glass, and there is a single honk from the parking lot.

“I must pack up my bad jokes and take myself out and go home now.”  Dance makes a sad-clown face.

Drin holds out the folded jacket, and then his empty hand.  This time, Dance wraps his long fingers warmly around Drin’s hand.  Ceremonially Dance cups his other hand around Drin’s knuckles.  Dance bows several times over their hands, thanks him for the drink, allows Drin to pat him on the back once before he lets go.

Drin watches him go, but he doesn’t follow the man.  He knows he’s probably not fooling anybody, but damn, that violinist has a fine-looking ass.  Yes, the same butt that bruised him just by shoving him into the bar, guarding him from nothing much.  He’s very sorry to see the door close.  Drin stalls for a few more minutes, though, gives the bartender a final tip in the jar, gets a salute.  Apparently he has the guy’s approval as one of Dance’s Big Time Fans.  Or possibly the only one.

The night air outside feels blessedly cool when he departs the front door, smiling.  Progress!  The tricky part will be to avoid making obvious claims in public, when Dance is on the job.  Especially when Evans is asking nasty questions about why somebody might go vandalizing the Metro’s office.

Dance’s tongue on that damn straw has a lot to answer for.  Drin might regret that he didn’t try to fuck the violinist tonight.  But he’s not going to shortcut things, not after what he saw tonight.  There’s a lot more in the guy than a weekend blitz. The fey little musician, the deadly martial arts champion, the chilihead madman.  Solemn First chair, six-year-old boy.  The way his dark eyes suddenly go pale as a cat’s.  All those questions to hunt down just to satisfy his own inner auditor, too, that’s going to take awhile.

Right, Drin tells himself, patting the shirt pocket with the shred of cloth in it. This will be a strenuous long-term project.

What Money Can Buy

The city’s lights are laid out in waves, heaving over the small hills and splashing down into the lowlands. Drin never gets tired of standing out on his balcony in the cool updraft from the ravines and canyons, gazing at the streets flung out in strings like old Christmas tree lights, half the little bulbs missing. You can tell it grew up from cow trails, and there’s too much history there to argue with. One thing he loves about this town, they can’t be bothered to mow down their old neighborhoods to build new sewer lines. Gotta love a civilization that puts in extra power transformers to support light-up Santas, glowing green reindeer, and ugly Shirley Temple dolls that rotate, in a climate needs no ice scrapers.

Somebody has put a creche at the base of a palm tree. The inflatable Wisemen wear tourist sombreros and serapes. A red sari is wrapped in a Pakistani style around Mary. Joseph has been wearing a pie-pan halo and strings of Mardi Gras beads. This morning he was given a purple fake grass hula skirt. Drin suspects there will be other contributions. The trumpeting Angel has deflated and flopped back on the lawn just like a corpse, but not a human one. Disturbing.

Behind him, the dimly lit house invites him back into the comfort of the leather sofa, but Drin knows he’ll go, instead, to his desk and the tyranny of the glowing computer screen and the slow data compile that he’s running tonight. As if watching would make it go any faster.

There is a compromise, though. Drin fetches his laptop and a glass of bourbon and opens the sliding door and lets himself sink into the sofa’s upholstery. For a moment, he just lays there, letting the weight of the laptop rest on his chest.

The dry wind smells of sage. It purls up over the edge of the balcony, ruffling over his toe joints, chilling his feet until the freckles practically glow. It gets a little cool up here at night for sandals.

glassed balcony 2-story apt
Bi-Level Lux Bach Pad with Balcony, Good Party Place

The money he just sent off to the Metro’s recruitment fund could have bought him a couple of nice pairs of custom boots. Must be either winter or middle age creeping up, he’s been feeling a hankering for something plain and perfectly fit and old school. Last year, he would have indulged himself. Now, why bother?  He hasn’t worn boots since he was in the military, and he didn’t miss taking those things off forever.

Hell, he can wear sandals like he’s at the beach the whole year, if he wants. Get tan lines among his freckles. And he doesn’t have to sleep with a gun under his head, no pillows in sight. He can have all the damn pillows he wants. Hell, he could have all the booty he wants, propped up on those pillows, waggling around waiting for him, begging to pleasure him properly.

That felt like the weirdest thing about being a civilian: He could have all the tail he wanted, as much as he wanted, procured via skill, cleverness, kindness, or money. Until he just didn’t want any more. Until he started noticing how unhappy his own eyes were. Until safe sex wasn’t about sex anymore, just about safety.

His cell phone dropped down to work numbers and online brokers and a couple of gyms. Pathetic, as he told Engerman.

Next day, those first Metro tickets were sitting on his desk. Thank God for Engerman.

Only one of the Metro’s numbers will answer if he calls this late. He could call that one, and be welcome. But he won’t keep the Concertmaster from the thick stack of scores he was carrying out tonight for edits. The First Cellist, Amalia, grabbed a big chunk of them away from Dance, too. Technically, each musician is supposed to make their own notes.  However, too many of the strings are overwhelmed by Maestro Young’s fits of perfectionism, and the first chairs are getting stubborn about standards.  The limited hours from their semi-retired Librarian are chewed up already. On top of that, various business managers have refused the Metro’s offers because of Young; apparently word has gone round.

Annoyed, Drin flips open the laptop, riffles through the files and websites stacked up waiting for him. Rates are down, big surprise, and there’s promotions all over, emails begging for people to buy their stuff. Things are still oozing down the initial slide from Black Tuesday months ago.

Christ, sit tight on decent stuff, and you may be ruler of the world in a month, he thinks. What is the matter with these fools? No, no, and no. He always hears The Gambler in his head while he’s dicing on stocks, it gives him a nice time limit so he doesn’t go off into OCD-land and blink awake nine hours later with his portfolio acting like it’s on crack.

Buy now, while the market is scratching itself on the bottom like a boat scraping on a sand-bar.

Shut up, he tells himself. Do the homework, and don’t get impulsive.

Stable is good. Long term is good. That one he marked ten days ago as a possible buy, that was just a dead-cat bounce, as he thought it might be. Now it reeks. He’ll wait, take another look in a few weeks. He closes out of personal accounts and opens work-related ones. Looks at recent aerospace stock slides that Bud Innes thought might reward more in-depth research.

He finds the company websites are all security-heavy and disinclined to divulge ordinary public information online. The ties to Bud’s sort of business are not obvious, and Drin has never heard of them as suppliers or customers, but with some digging on custom-built inventory, it’s there. Somebody doesn’t want to admit to nested connections that are already a matter of public record. Well, there’s ways around that too. Pay for copies of public records from the secretaries of their respective states.

It slows things down, of course, and Bud Innes will note that just as implacably if he decides to engineer another hostile takeover of a competitor. He praises Drin’s instincts for finding these sitting duck companies for him to shoot down. Bud’s elegant pink-shirted exterior is totally deceptive — he enjoys shutting down Board meetings, racking through their inventory for parts, selling everything he can’t use, and ripping the competent employees over onto his own payrolls. He’s tough on the losers.

He’s been talking to Drin about how best to manage that, how to look like a sorrowful daddy instead of a hatchet-man. It looks as if he might start assigning Drin to that sort of work. Or he might be testing how far Drin would go, what his loyalties are, what kind of cruelties Drin will sit still for.

Not much, as it happens. Plant-closing interviews creep him out. It’s not his area of expertise, he’s in no mood to learn it, and by now Bud knows it. Which might be a mistake. Bud Innes wants something, but it’s not throwing a signal which Drin recognizes. Well, Bud Innes can go on wanting whatever it is, or he can explain himself. Maybe eventually Drin will learn what it is–oh charming, another learning experience. If Bud is trying to groom some kind of protege out of such untidy material as Drin, things could get much worse. Then Bud would push him right to the edge of quitting, just to find out where it is.

Hell, if core honesty got punished, there’s no point in his sticking with Bud’s company. There’s always somewhere for an auditor to work, even if it’s not for quite so much money. He’s always worked. No shortage of other places to go, even in a recession.

Drin flips away from all of that. Metro Symphony, gotta love it. His favorite for dull, stodgy, dimly hopeful, unchanging content. The website creaks like a Victorian corset. He mutes the sound to avoid the punishment of the endless midi-style waltz. It’s embarrassing when Engerman shows it proudly to people at work.

singer actor Chen Kun from movie
sidelit portrait

The web mistress’s idea of color balance means the Metro’s people of color all look like silhouettes. Dance manages to look positively saturnine on the website, when the actual shot in the paper files has him laughing. But he’s never in focus. Has anybody ever taken a decent picture of him? Get those cheekbones lit properly. A decent photographer might capture that chilly academic amusement; a great one would catch lots of other things. It only costs patience, and a little money.

But Dance with his sardonic gaze must have a pretty astonishing tolerance for drippy old-school schmaltz and sentimentality after all, probably better remember that about the man. Just look at their repertoire, and the way it’s laid out on the website. Drin shudders.

Bud’s been pushing for changes, but the Metro’s admin folks wouldn’t know visuals if it came up and bit ’em–which it is, failing to keep up with the times as they are. Bud provided jazzy expensive shots of Robert and Valerie horsing around prettily, which will get people popping in happily to see more. But no, the webmistress primmed her mouth when Drin asked her if she got those new pictures up.

She hasn’t done anything about the horrible music either–Bud said he thought Geocities was banned under the Geneva Convention. Of course Bud can snap his fingers and get very sharp web designers free, but she’s still scrambling with excuses. She doesn’t want to post things that might induce people to regard their musicians in a trivial light.

He looks up away from the stupid pictures and sighs. Trivial light, for crissake. What do these poor benighted musicians think they’re selling if not romance, the sweet fools?

Most of the Metro’s people are so purely auditory they can’t even recognize faces, only voices.

Don’t leave notes for them, Dance told him gravely. You have to speak to them if you want them to remember. Dance joked that he could streak naked through that bunch, they wouldn’t notice unless he yelled.

So why is Dance always covered up in those thrift-store sweat suits during practices? He’s never complained of being cold. His hands are always hot. Hell, make him shed a few layers for a Metro shoot. Get snaps of that body, too, that no one ever gets to see. Hints of it, yes– the reflexes when someone barrels around a corner into him, the precise balance, all that comes out of the dojo he’s mentioned. The deeply cut abs when his crappy gray sweatshirt rides up for a moment. An equally sculpted shin, before Dance tugs his sweatpants back down his legs.

Those frayed waistbands that peer out when he reties his shoes? Those belong to old, soft boxers that don’t tame a hard-on in the least. So it’s not just your typical first-chair tighty whitey Concertmaster control freak under that rumpled surface. It’d be fun to see what a tailor would make of that ass, with decent design. Stop traffic, probably.

Over the past weeks, while Drin has been circling, and while Dance has been turning to face him like prey towards the predator, the once-impassive face has taken on so many subtleties that Drin now wonders… something. Is it all in his mind, or something… Numbers go spiralling down in the back of his mind. Enough, enough.

See Drin in his much-envied near-penthouse apartment on the coast, with the view. See Drin wearing sandals late in the year. See Drin surfing the Internet on his laptop on the balcony of his enviable apartment while admiring the amazingly beautiful view. See Drin check out the specs for tricking out his bloody expensive car, tune it up just that hair-thin degree better.

See Drin think about how it feels to fuck somebody in the leather seats of his amazingly sexy car. See Drin think about sucking off somebody spread out on his buttery soft leather sofa in his amazing enviable apartment.

fawn-colored leather couch cushions
Needs Company

See Drin not want anybody he could have tonight.

See Drin wave his hands absurdly in the air, figuring out a sequence of magician’s movements he could get away with, because he hasn’t really touched anything yet. See Drin reduced to figuring out how he can pull off silly magic sleight-of-hand tricks just to cop a feel while he’s running the wallet back into the man’s loose dress pants. Christ, that will deserve every feel he could give it. Just thinking about turning that trick turns him on. A hell of a lot of fun, but so very, very frustrating, on a night like this one.

“PPRETT Y BOYS ALL ASIA” says the the inbox. Damn, Drin thinks, one pretty asian boy would be enough. Dance would be enough. He’s not PPRETT Y, but he grows on you.

Drin grins and aims a sarcastic barb at himself: Why are you even fucking pretending?

He’s let himself become completely smitten with an tough-ass little violinist out of nowhere. A miserably overworked tough little violinist who’s not sleeping enough, too busy doing scores for repeated changes for Maestro Young to be able to think clearly, dammit.

“Korean twink” Drin idly taps into the search field. Oh sure, pretty boys a-plenty, a whole nation of pretty boys. Funny though, none of them look anything like Dance. Could it be the current standards of beauty? Christ, they all look like young Paul McCartney. All these guys are full-cheeked, mostly pale, and offer full and lushly pink mouths like American high school jocks, in fact– nothing approaching the other-worldly look that Dance displays.

Although– yeah, there are a few sculpted bodies, looking like they’re double-muscled, like a gene-eng Angus bull, and, oh yeah. That’s nice. Put Dance’s head on that neck, and just maybe–yeah, Dance has an ass like that, fantastic deep glutes topping thighs like a horse’s, the ladder of his spine reaching up to that pair of shoulders– oh fuck, oh yeah. Fucking perfect. The head turning, with those eyes looking up, relaxed, dark.

So many things no website will give him.  The man’s brushy sharp smell when he’s sweating after performances, that odd scent which lingers in the scrap of jacket lining sitting safely in a plastic bag, up on a closet shelf.

That shuddering little shrug that Drin has felt when he pats the guy on the back– Drin wants that, wants it, wants to be the cause of it. That amazing tight little shiver he gave last night, standing up taller under Drin’s hand, and looking up into Drin’s eyes without sliding away, without blinking, without lowering his eyelids in his usual way.

Astonishing, how far the man’s pupils changed, looking up at him. He’s never seen dark eyes change so visibly in such instant reaction. It can’t be the first time, dammit. He’s just been too slow, he never caught it happening before.

If Drin had known about that two weeks ago, he’d have arranged something like a new-piece celebration dinner for all the first chairs or something, he’d have acted on it a lot sooner.

Those eyes looking at him, dialing wide open. And then Dance gave that wry, self-deprecating little smile of his. Well, funny how that went straight to the libido. Christ, he’s not pulling away, either, is he?

Drin scrabbles his belt open and pushes his slacks down with shaking hands, scraping himself with the zipper, cold air shooting up under his balls and making him gasp. His cock flips out already turning red, already showing a single drop from the slit. He spits on his palm, slides rough over the head, flicks his fingernail against the tendon just once– Careful with your teeth, Dance– he wants that hot tongue sliding right there, and at the same time his hands are sliding over a pair of sharp hip bones, and his mouth engulfs Dance down to the root. It’s pushing at his tongue, shoving down his throat, because there’s plenty to share.

furry tum in unzipped jeans
unzipped

Get him hard and hot and breathing heavy and then that tight body is rolling over, making the offer, wanting it, presenting himself as much as any man possibly can. Darker flesh of his crack and perineum pointing to that tight brown ring, and Drin’s touching him there, freckles sliding inside him, loving their way into him, his other hand stroking down that taut belly, gripping the base of the man’s cock–

Drin feels the pulses coming, long and slow and hard, as if it’s been months since he’s fucked anyone, and then he’s got a handful of warm wet, and he’s blinking at the stars whirling around his head.

Struggling Artists

“What’s the matter?” Emma asks, opening kitchen cabinets and pulling down tins.

actor Kim Jae Wook, kicking
actor Kim Jae Wook, kicking

Dance flings himself into a chair with a thump and sits looking at the floor, with his hair fallen over his face, and only part of one eye showing. “I’m doing crap tonight.”

“Ahh,” she says, and fills the kettle. She was pretty sure of that already, given that he hadn’t done anything about dinner, he hadn’t made tea, and when she first stepped in the front door, she could hear the violin protesting Maestro Young’s latest selections of repertoire from the back of the house.

“So playing stopped,” Dance says. “The bow, the instrument, me, we are all at cross angles.”

“Well, you tried for a good long time. Some days, that’s all you can do. Would working out at the dojo help? I could drive you, if you want.”

Dance pushes his hands over his face, and sits with his head propped in his palms, elbows on his knees. “We are not knowing. We tried extra time jogging, trying to calm down.”

“What happened at work?”

“Amalia and me, we don’t think Young really wants to be here at all,” his voice says from behind his fingers. “Amalia thinks Young has signed the contract some place.”

“He’s certainly made it abundantly clear why he hates things out here,” she says, getting out a cutting board and pan. She looks at him more carefully. “You think he’s trying to get his sorry ass fired? Go back home to white-bread land? That’s good news, right?”

“Not quite. He is trying to provoke us. Create legal grounds for breaking contract.”

Emma blinks at him, surprised.

“Amalia thinks it is probably Nebraska.”

“They’re smaller than we are!”

Dance spreads his hands out in puzzled agreement.

Emma starts cutting onions. She says, preoccupied, “Why would any conductor want to go back to Nebraska, anyway?”

“Maybe there are nice things there we don’t find here,” Dance says. “Amalia said it is much more small town, people know each other more, there would be more accountability when people are known to each other, right?”

She sighs. “Stop trying to be fair!”

He blinks at her in surprise.

She looks up at Dance and sighs. She used to get that puzzled look from him all the time, back when he was still learning what kind of rules came with strange new words and phrases. “They probably can pay him more than we do, that’s all.”

Dance says, “Do you think they would not be fair to our Miss Emma? I mean, the kind of people one meets in Nebraska?”

“I meet people from Nebraska all the time, for conferences. Librarians and music people and extremely tough-minded charity fund-raising folks. Both liberals and conservatives, you know. I am in total awe of their guts, let me tell you. No, what you’re talking about is the stereotype of small-town Nebraska, narrow-minded Scripture literalists and bigots. But they don’t all believe like that. That’s just the annoying loudmouths anyway. Just like we have all kinds of annoying loudmouths. And none of these loud puffballs are fair to their so-called ‘enemies’, are they?”

He tilts his head slightly, thinking about it. “Well, they may play at it, to give the appearance of fair, but then they just knock down the straw targets? Push over the scarecrowman, yes?”

She smiles. “God, Dance, I love talking to you, you’re so fun.”

He looks at her. “Well, they usually don’t even have very good aim at those poor sitting targets, do they?”

Which makes her laugh, and that’s probably what he meant to do.

She points at him. “What kind of badly acting happened tonight?”

Dance looks away, hugging himself as if he’s cold.

“Okay now, cough it up, it won’t kill you, it’s just a hairball–”

“Mister Drin and Mister Bud Innes, they walked out. Young said things to them.”

She puts her hand down on the counter, bracing herself, and stares at him. “Oh love, that won’t do. That damn fool!”

“It was… it was bad. About how.. sluts like… Robert … behave. Before he was with Bud.”

“Was Robert there?”

“No, that was part of the problem. He wasn’t… Robert wasn’t scheduled to be there. There was no reason for the cello section to be there. But Young had us call them up, and about half of them made it. He gave Amalia hell for being late, and she gave it right back to him for being a… stupid arrogant prick.” The words are short, bitten-off, as if he’s having a hard time making them come out at all.

Emma scowls. Amalia does not lose her temper prettily. For the hundredth time Emma goes over lists of names of possible candidate conductors again in her mind. They can’t get Artois for love or money since he hates living in town here, too close with his relatives. Gaglioni is prone to temper tantrums at sub-professional performances. “Gags” might be fine if they had a decent budget to pay for topflight sections, but they don’t. It was that gangster Shura Korachevsky who warned her and Amalia away from Whiteley’s bad habits with finances. There’s a good dozen more to look at, but it’d take money to go listen to their practices and performances and really find out.

Young is a vindictive prick, too. He must be trying to leave the Metro a shambles. Now the damnable man may have put two of their best patrons at risk, not to mention salaries for at least four first chairs. Somebody will have to go talk to Bud Innes about that.

God help her, she knows who gets to go, cap in hand, begging Innes to interview conductors while he’s in various cities on other business. From what Emma’s overheard, Innes is tight with S. David Smith, the oh-so-trendy conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Perhaps he could call in a favor or two when he’s out East, and get the names of a few likely candidates. Besides Drin, Innes is practically the only patron with a decent enough ear for both the music and leadership ends of the problem. Goodness knows he travels enough; Dance is very patient on the endless panicky calls from Robert. Poor guy has panic attacks whenever Bud is out of town for too long.

Dance scrubs his eyes with his knuckles. She’s seen him cry before, and not just while they were going through the Months of Being Alone, as he called it. He says sometimes he just gets too full, and when it overflows he gets angry, he shouts, he cries, he vents it off safely here at home. But Young is overloading the tolerances too far. Dance is beginning to react aggressively at Young’s bullying of other players. He’s starting to stare down, not to look away when Young challenges him.

She looks at him. There’s something else going on there, she thinks. Young insulting patrons is a only little unusual these days; Young really hasn’t been the same since the party where he was seen screaming at Dance and that poor little pregnant violist.

“You called Bud right away?”she asks.

Dance nods again. “He told me not to worry, he understood, he said he and Drin left because they didn’t want to provoke things any worse. He says he wants the list of conductors to interview in London and Salzburg next month.”

“Have you called Drin?”

“No.”

“Okay,” she says, and starts rummaging in the fridge for things to chop into a stir fry. “Talk to me.”

“When Young said insulting things to them, when he looked at Mister Drin like that, we just… ” Dance makes a wave with his hand. “We just… got too close to…” he makes another wave.

“Why Drin, and not Bud?” she asks, washing vegetables. “Yes, of course he’s very likable, very supportive, comes up with great ideas, everybody adores talking to Drin. Everybody must be furious on his behalf.”

Dance puts his face back into his hands. “Young gets to all of us with what truth we do not want to admit, yes? The icky, sneaky truth.”

“Oh yeah,” Emma says, grimly.

“The queer slut, that was his insult to those two patrons. They’ve been more helpful in two months than most patrons in years, but he says things like that to them. To drive them away, yes?”

“If he’s trying to ensure the patrons are all hetero, then yes, he’ll make those sorts of insults. So what else is new?” Emma corrals the chopped bits of loose celery.

“Young said things like, ‘Going out to pick up beardless boys in clubs every night.'”

Emma winces. “Oh yeah, that’s grounds for us dumping his contract, all right. You’re right, that was really bad.”

“This made us…made me… so mad… It’s not true, the idea that Drin… that he’s… flighty. A tomcat.”

“Oh?” Emma says. That’s what everybody assumes of great big charismatic guys like Drin, though nobody seems to have any evidence about who Drin goes out with, or how often he picks up new partners. Give the guy credit for that, Drin has kept his personal life far more private than the Roberts of this world tend to do.

“He’s not, we don’t care what Young says he saw.”

Emma raises her brows. “How would Young see anything? Why would he know anybody’s tastes in boys, if he’s as straight as he claims to be?”

Dance looks up at her, shocked.

She gives a little shrug, julienning zucchinis that Dance brought in from the garden. They need to be used. “If Maestro Young is so damn straight he can’t stand hearing all that icky stuff, where would he have heard it? Why would he even bring it up?”

“Because either Bud or Drin are the manly man when they’re not even trying, more than Young on his most puffball loud day?” Dance says.

“Puffball loud,” Emma repeats, grinning. “That’s a good word for it. Hellfire, Dance, come right down to it, you’re a helluva lot more macho yourself. You get things done and you don’t make a parade of it.”

“What? Oh, Our Miss Emma has more of the machisma. Miss Emma is a much tougher customer than Young.”

“That isn’t hard! Young goes to pieces over schedules.” She rolls her eyes. “I think he’s got some minor disabilities on the fiscal and calendrical front, if you want the truth. But that’s nothing to do with mental toughness. Admit you have a problem, move on, get some help, right? He could have the balls for that.”

Dance grunts, shaking his head.

Emma says, annoyed, “Somebody taught Young to get out of work by throwing tantrums.”

“We must make it clear that he can turn things over to Admin people who like doing those schedules, make it easier for him.” He stands up, stretches. “You want the broccoli stems peeled?”

Korean dish bibimbab
Korean dish, bibimbab in a stone plate, photo by Korean Kitchen

“Yeah, that’d be great. And peel some onion for me.”

“Needs garlic too,” Dance says.

“Gonna load up on the garlic, just to tick off Young and his touchy nose?” Emma says, grinning.

“We seriously considered asking Drin to go to dinner with our Miss Emma, and Miss Amalia and her sister, and having pizza with extra garlic,” Dance says gravely.

“That’s a great idea!” Emma says.

“Can’t afford it until next month,” Dance says. “All that extra copying. We just found out the Metro isn’t going reimburse any of us for that. We can’t ask people like Amalia to cover an extra fifty bucks she doesn’t have.”

“Oh Christ, and I’m skint this month too, the way they raised the rent on us,” Emma says.

“We know,” Dance says.

“You should call Drin,” Emma says.

“What can we say?” Dance says. He sounds a little panicky.

“I don’t think you’ll have to say much of anything. Just mention his friend Bud. I bet he’s mad on Bud’s behalf.”

Dance chops broccoli stems distractedly. “Mister Bud is Mister Drin’s boss, but they do enjoy talking at events, they seem like friends then.”

“It’s reasonable for him to be concerned when somebody’s insulting his buddy, right? Give me the knife, love, before you cut yourself. Let me get started frying this up, you go call him. Everybody will feel better.”

Dance nods, and leaves the bowl of chopped broccoli and onion by her. She can hear him talking, as the food sizzles in the wok. She pours in some soup stock, quieting the noise.

“…Too tangled up to play very well..” she hears, which is a remarkably trusting thing for him to say to anybody.

Then there’s long silences interrupted when he says, “Oh yes, Mister Drin is right,” or things like, “Is our Mister Drin thinking we could do that for the next concert? That’s a very good idea,” and she can hear his voice relaxing as the conversation goes on.

Dance is smiling when he hangs up, and he comes back to Emma and puts his arms around her in a big hug and kisses her on the cheek. “Thanking our Miss Emma, who is very wise,” he says.

“You’re welcome. Also, you need to crush some more garlic for me,” she says, shifting the broccoli about in rapid dips and flips of the spoon. Dance taught her how to do stir fry, and he’s very patient about what she does to things like curries and dirty rice.

“Here’s some canned water chestnuts,” he says. “It’s cheating, but the best we can do.”

She looks at Dance, who is busy being her sous-chef. He starts mixing up the spices and cornstarch into sauce for her.

Hmm, she thinks. Young was zeroing in on some live signal there.Trying to poke through the armor.

She isn’t going to open it up again now that Drin’s got him calmed down, but she’d bet that the needling wasn’t aimed at Drin or Bud Innes. He was jabbing at Dance. The cooler and calmer Dance is, the more Young wants to poke at him. It’s like a teenager pushing and pushing until somebody lays down the hard boundary line, and then they kick up a squall just to be sure of it.

Why would Young want to see Dance go all to pieces, anyway? The Metro has never seen Dance lose his temper, not once. She has. Talk about goddamn scary. That’d take the Metro to bits all by itself. Hell, nobody wants to see that. It makes them all crazy nervous enough when the second violinist goes off, being jealous about his wife and tries to get Dance to fight with him–and he does it nearly every month, like clockwork.Young tried to provoke the usual competition between first and second chair, but he only succeeded in making Brian’s tantrums worse. It didn’t get to Dance at all. Dance is always cool as ice through those encounters. But Dance likes Brian Erickson, even with all the competitive violinist prickles and the jealousy problems about Brian’s ridiculously rude wife. Treats him just like a squawling pet cat who badly needs a flea dip in spite of the waving claws.

What was Young zeroing in on? she thinks. She pours Dance’s sauce into the wok to thicken it, stirring it in rapid flicks of her spoon. “Maaaan, that smells good, I always love your spicing.”

Dance smiles. “Mister Drin said he’d dare eat my hot barbecue next time. He heard rumors he might have to use tongs to eat it.”

“They’re quite right about that, love!” Emma grins. She’s not in the same class when it comes to eating chilies at the level of heat that Dance can handle, but she’s learned that she likes chilies with a range and depth of good flavor. Dance’s Korean-style barbecue has a sticky sweet tang something like Japanese tonkatsu. He labels the pans with warnings. For the hot pan, he adds lots of mustard and garlic and hot radish, and a long, slow, killer heat from three different kinds of chilies. He’s warned her to be very careful if she ever handles the little glass jar in the fridge with the marinating Scotch bonnet chilies.

If Young starts messing with Dance about his buddy Drin, she thinks, then the poor sap is gonna be in a world of hurt. Getting Scotch bonnet chilies dumped in his underpants will be the least of the guy’s worries.

And that’s just talking about Dance.

Bud Innes may be amused by all this fuss. He doesn’t feel the need to intervene in politics very often. He has a scary level of trust in people’s instincts for self-defense.

Not Drin. Drin is not going to tolerate Young’s games. Drin is hands-on, a whole different order of possessive, a totally different style of ownership. Drin’s plans are affecting the whole damn symphony through Dance as the concertmaster. Drin has laid claim on Dance’s time and interests in ways that have nothing to do with picking up beardless boys in clubs.

Young knows it, too.

Jealous sod. Picking on Drin’s foremost pet musicians? That’s tiny politics from a penny-ante operator. No patron with money and political savvy likes seeing that.

Drin hasn’t bent any kind of revenge onto the man yet–certainly not the way Bud Innes will, when he gets a hot new conductor with a name in there for the Metro, somebody who totally eclipses Young. They’ll have a hard time remembering who whats-his-name was. Eventually. Trust Bud Innes for that.

Drin is more short-term, up close, bare-knuckled. She’s uncertain what Drin will do if Young starts attacking Dance or Amalia so bluntly.

So far, Drin is civil to the man, he addresses Young calmly, nodding when Young says things, paying attention as much as he does with anybody in the orchestra.

But Young doesn’t get the time and care and interest that Drin directs to Dance.

Hell, Drin puts in more time and effort talking to Amalia, the first cellist and Dance’s best buddy in the Metro.

Young knows that too. Hates it.

How pathetic is that?

Emma squints against a gust of highly-spiced steam. She knows Drin and Dance have had some fun conversations about chilies. Ahhh, that could be useful, she thinks. She’s going to have to find some way to thank the man for how he got Dance to calm down and relax again tonight.

That’s some leadership, she thinks. That’s what they need in a conductor, dammit.

===

from another googledocs collaboration!