Paganini’s Strings

The neon lights of kanji rippled in the puddle. December rain pounded the rusty drain pipes and trash loaded wall-to-wall in the night-cloaked alley. It reeked of fried and refried takeaways, a stench that gave my stomach a guilty rumble.

But I never eat before a gig. It wouldn’t stay down otherwise. Instead, I sipped on a flask of bitter coffee, waiting. Despite the rain, I was in high spirits. This gig would pay handsomely, and by my standards, was fairly routine. Regardless, I’d had my guitar restrung; no crack-ups this time. Just killer riffs.

I shuffled the guitar and portable amp bagged on my back. Paganini, I called it. In this line of work you had to call your weapon of choice by a name.


There came a shaft of musty light, gleaming a door shape against the wall. I threw my flask onto the trash heap and ducked behind a skip. Flies bounded on and off my face and hands, but I had to concede it, had to remain still. I pulled my trenchcoat tighter around me, and peered down the alley.

Voices bawling in furious Japanese met my ears through the rain. Then the sharp noise of crockery smashing. Shadows danced across the light like a puppet show. At last he staggered out, throwing his lithe hands out against the wall like a lizard. His hair blazed with the colour and manner of a fire, and his furious eyes did similar as he looked back. Cat-like he leapt for the door – the light closed away with a slam, leaving his fists pounding against the surface, the steel echoing through the alley. It shook the flies off me, at least.

“Yeah? Well to hell with you!” he roared, “I don’t need this job!”

He spat at the doorstep. Instantly I sized him up; tall, perhaps underweight, full of cocksure bravado. So, this was Ken. Judging by the get-up he was either an über-fashion victim or a hardcore cyberpunk. He even wore sweatbands weaved of microchips and wires. I watched him light up and suck luxuriously on a cigarillo. My lip curled; he was certainly underage. So, he was a tearaway and a pretentious brat too? This was just getting better and better. I’d played to tougher people for less.

Finally, Ken moved down the alley, hunched and brooding, disappearing through a plume of greasy steam. I leapt up, and shook myself down vigorously. I’d not have my new trenchcoat ruined. Stepping lightly, I emerged through the steam onto the main street.


The towers of the Urbania gleamed against the night, each screaming for attention with dazzling arrays of fluorescent lights bedecking the sporadic angles of the walls. The thumping bass lines of various generic trance tunes escaped from the nightclubs and melded into one equally generic mesh of noise. Late-night shoppers and revellers bustled from doorway to awning, ducking against the rain. Between the garish circus were alleyways loaded with shifting shadows and smoke; gateways into the underworld beneath the lights.

I quickly caught sight of Ken, a flash of fire in the night. He strode tall against the rain, shouldering passers-by. I followed, keeping a good distance behind. A row of shop assistants standing under umbrellas proudly declared their latest offers to me:

“Extremely rare Oscibird feathers! When they’re gone they’re gone!”

“Happy hour for the whole night! Get those drinks in!”

“Hey you! We’ve got girls all the way from the Ayrn Islands waiting just for you!”

I’d admit that one of them tickled my fancy. But now was not the time.

In my moment’s distraction, I lost sight of Ken. I looked up just in time to see him slip down a side street. Odd; this wasn’t a neighbourhood best suited for a night-time stroll. Either he really was naïve or he was asking for trouble. I shrugged, and slipped away from the crowds after him.

It wasn’t an alley, but it wasn’t a real street either. The cobbled path wound downwards, the stones shining under the weak glow of flickering lamps. Tiny stores squeezed for room on either side, their windows so murky and crowded with oddities that it was impossible to tell whether they were open or closed.

Just when I thought I’d lost my quarry, with an all manner of doors to slip through, I heard the scuffing of shoes on the cobble stones up ahead. I plunged own the path, briskly, silently.

Soon, Ken came back into view, walking as casually as I was careful. Didn’t he have any idea what territory he was walking into? Not that I cared for him: soon I’d play for him and it would all be over. But I did care for myself. Immensely. I’d have to spring onto him soon, get it over with and get out while I could. Maybe that was why my employee was paying so much; idiots were dangerous creatures.

The street came to an end, and he stopped before a plain door. I slipped into the shadows once again, as his head cocked around. Had he seen me? Heard me?

He ran his hand through his hair, and lifted the lid on a battered dustbin. He unstuck a key taped to the underside of the lid and inserted it into the door. It unlocked with a loud clunk that defied it’s size. With another look over his shoulder, he replaced the key and slipped through the door, locking it shut from the inside with another clunk.


I waited for a while, aware that this left me in an awkward situation. On the one hand, I had him cornered. On the other hand, he had me cornered too, if he was at all aware of it; I could only enter through this door. He could easily ambush me and ruin the whole gig.

Still, I had no choice. It was too much money. I unpacked my equipment, in case I needed to make a quick play.

Paganini slung over my shoulder and amp in my hand, I stepped inside, tensed, ready to swing into action. It was inky black inside. The air had an electric tang, as though a storm were rolling in. It felt like a big room, perhaps huge. The old nerves started setting in again, and my empty stomach clenched. The tips of my fingers perspired.

Where was Ken? For all the darkness told, he could be a fair distance away, or standing right next to me. But if he’d seen me, he’d have made his move by now, surely. Perhaps I’d entered undetected, after all.

I stepped forward, slowly, hands out, expecting to bump into something. Nothing. The room kept going. What was this place? Such expansive rooms didn’t exist in the cramped heart of the Urbania. Something didn’t feel right. The hairs on my neck bristled. I turned – and saw him, standing in a pool of light, looking right at me with cold eyes, the fire snuffed out.

In one smooth, heavily rehearsed motion, I dropped the amp to the floor, swung Paganini into my hands, and jacked the guitar in. The sweet sound of feedback shivered up my arms. I sucked it in through my teeth, feeding on it. I pressed the tips of my fingers against the strings, feeling the coarse gut strings rub against my toughened skin. The familiar shape of Paganini pressed against my thigh and midriff. All fear had evaporated. I felt alive. Ken still slumped in casual nonchalance. He sneered at the sight of me.

“Herrick Stringslayer,” he said in a drawl, “My, what a surprise.”

I wasn’t taken aback by the fact that he knew my name. My reputation preceded me. Perhaps he recognised the infamous red strings of Paganini, drawn from the gut of an Oscibird. I wasn’t even taken aback by his lack of surprise upon seeing me. No. If he did know me, then he must know why I am here. Then why did he not run? Why did he stand before me, unafraid, bored even?

It didn’t matter. I licked my dry lips, feeling the ridges in the cracked skin. It was time to play.

I slammed my fingers down and pressed the strings tightly against the frets. Locked. Loaded. My breathing was shallow. Paganini was ready to draw blood. I raised my picking hand, poised to strike. I gave Ken one last passing glance: arms crossed, still bored. Enough of this.

I brought my hand down like a guillotine, stroking my nails hard against the strings. The music! It blasted from the amp, filling the infinite darkness with it’s rough beauty. Pins and needles seared up my arms; blood leapt into my head, making my knees weak. I staggered to the floor in a stupor, letting the towering chord ring through my bones.

I completely forgot about Ken. I descended into a screaming solo, my fingers skipping joyfully over the strings, taking on a life of their own as they shaped the air with Paganini’s screeching. It sent an ache prickling across my back, made old scars sting – the Immunity wasn’t total – but it was a bittersweet ache, a hurt born from goodness.

I stopped abruptly. The ghosts of the music faded away imperceptibly into the ringing in my ears. The amp crackled and buzzed, hungrily awaiting my next move.

But it was done. I’d played enough to tear a small army to shreds. The sweat on my brow turned chill.


I looked up – and gave a screech not unlike Paganini’s final note. Ken stood there, unscathed! I looked down at Paganini, and back up again – how could this be? He should be sliced to the marrow, entrails steaming in the cool air. But no – his body had held firm against Paganini’s strings. How? There were two other people with Immunity in Urbania, and Ken wasn’t one of them.

Ken raised his hands, and brought them together into a slow, sardonic applause.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Each felt like a slap in the face.

“Not bad,” he remarked matter-of-factly, “A few bum notes halfway through, but you covered them up nicely. One of yours?”

I swallowed, wetting my throat, but I said nothing. Had I not played enough? I usually lost track of time as I played – but no; the opening chord alone should’ve been enough to carve him up. Should’ve been.

“Who…are you?” I managed at last. I barely heard myself.

Ken’s lips curled. He glanced at his watch, then raised three fingers.



A crash erupted nearby. He didn’t turn, merely gave a nod.

“This is your end, Ken!” a husky boom.

Ken clicked his fingers. A second spotlight flickered on, just behind him. A vast drum kit, with twenty drums and as many cymbals. A vast man towered over it all. He raised his drumsticks, drowned in the size of his fists – then hesitated, his beady eyes locked onto mine. A knot twisted in my stomach.

“Herrick?” he said, pulling a frown that made him look like a gorilla.

“Dermon,” I said with a steely respect. The Skinslammer. The ghettos and inner city wastelands of Urbania were his domain, and ruled over them with the Oscibird skins of his drums and the cymbals made of a similar alloy. The heart of the city was mine. We nodded to each other coldly. I didn’t care much for this guy – after all, if he didn’t exist I would have twice as much work, and be twice as rich and notorious – but we held each other in grim esteem, like business rivals. We stuck to our territories, and knew the consequences if we didn’t.

“Ah, you know each other!” said Ken, giving a devilish smile to each of us, “Good. Yes, it will make everything much easier.”

What happened next seemed to catch Ken off guard. Footsteps. Running towards him from the left. He snapped his fingers again, and another spotlight blazed. For a second it was empty – then she ran into it. Mephista, the so-called Bassassin . Her territories were the leafy suburbs miles out, towards the hills. What were she and Dermon doing here? This was my job! We were on neutral grounds, but barely.

Mephista snapped her slick bass and amp into place, and threw her thick dreadlocks out of her opal eyes, staring at Ken. She didn’t appear to notice myself or Dermon.

“You’re mine, boy!” she hissed, and she plunged headlong into a bass riff, throwing her dreadlocks back and forth as she clawed at the red strings.

Not wanting to miss his chance, Dermon bashed furiously against the drums, the crisp smash of cymbals spiking the hairs on my neck. My muscles ached again.

Well, I wasn’t just going to stand there whilst the other two went for the kill. I let loose with a delicious solo. Over my own rhythm I heard the bass and drums. We made a vast, messy wall of noise; terrifying, shapeless, in no way cohesive. We played enough to rip apart the entirety of Urbania thrice over, until we crumpled, exhausted.

I looked up. Ken was gone. Not dead, with his guts splayed across the floor as they should be; just gone. The spotlight where he stood was empty.

“Here,” he whispered.

As one, Dermon, Mephista and I wheeled around to face the far wall as it lit up, revealing a mountain of an organ reaching for the shadows and rafters. Ken stood at the keyboard. He flashed us a grin, laid his spidery hands across the keys and pressed down.

The first thing I did was to clutch my skull in both hands, for it felt ready to split open.

“Herrick!” Ken thundered over the hellish roar, “Dermon! Mephista! It’s time you three stepped down!”

Then it stopped, quite suddenly. The sound resounded in my head like a gunshot. My whole being was on fire.

Ken was still talking, though it sounded like he spoke from a floor above. He grabbed me by the lapels of my coat and pulled me up.

“You were all too proud, too complacent to realise,” he spat, “Immunity to the Oscibird’s qualities aren’t just blood-rights. If you’re willing to shed time, tears and blood – so much blood – it can be earned.”

I gulped down the acrid taste of my own blood. No…it wasn’t possible…

“Now I am stronger than the three of you put together!” he laughed, dropping me to the floor. “But I didn’t stop there; I researched the Oscibird’s guts and skins, learned about how it vibrates at the frequency of human flesh, causing it to tear as an opera singer can smash glass. I enhanced those qualities, enough to rip right through even your so-called Immunity.”

“I called you all here; I am your contracted employee and self-appointed killer. When I finish you off, the whole of Urbania will be at my mercy!”

He moved back to the organ. I had to act. One more note of that thing would be the end of me.

But what could I do? I had no further tricks up my sleeve. Unless…

I looked across and saw Dermon and Mephista, their bloodied and bruised eyes filled with dread as Ken stepped back up to the organ.

We met each others eyes, and knew what must be done. It was worth a try. We loathed to do it, but had no other options left beyond death…


Ken lowered himself onto the bench. He clicked his neck and cracked his knuckles, laid his hands on the keys – music met his ears. But he hadn’t pressed a key yet. He swivelled around. To his amusement, he watched the three mercenaries, barely conscious, playing out another tune. Ken chuckled.

“It’s hopeless!” he laughed, “You can’t –”

A cut tore across his shoulder. He looked up again. They were playing simultaneously, but in tune with each other. It was the simplest of jams; Mephista and Herrick played basic chords and solos whilst Dermon knocked out a drum beat an amateur would snort at. So where did that power come from? He wheeled back to the organ and slammed his fingers to the bone-white keys. The mercenaries crumpled to their knees, but kept on stubbornly playing away.

Snap. Ken’s fingernails shattered.

He screamed, threw himself backwards as though electrocuted, and stumbled to the floor. Dermon rounded off a drum break. A blow struck Ken across the head like a hammer, hurling phlegm and blood from his lips.

“Stop!” Ken pleaded, lurching towards them like a zombie. The band intensified their playing, tripping over each other in their efforts to throw in signature moves, but they held it together. Ken screwed up his face in one final effort, and leapt at Herrick Stringslayer.


Hands slick with sweat, I aimed Paganini’s machine head at Ken’s chest. I threw a glance at Dermon and Mephista, and they understood: they brought their play to an abrupt end, let a silence linger as Ken launched toward me. As his torn shirt touched the tip, I struck; a straight and true C Major rung out, throwing him backwards across the room, plunging into darkness. We heard him slap across the floor, heard him slide, and squeak to a halt in a lone spotlight, a blazing wreck. Smoke and steam hissed from the tips of his hair.

My arms slapped down to my sides, exhausted. I heard Dermon’s drumsticks clatter to the ground, heard Mephista give a vast sigh.

We walked over to him, trying in vain to keep steady postures. I felt as though an entire hive of wasps had had their way with me. I couldn’t even flex my fingers.

We stood over him, and I kicked him over, onto his back. Ken coughed, retched. We jumped back. Still alive! But barely.

“Idiots,” he croaked, “Do you think I’m the only one? There will be others. You can’t hold out forever.”

I managed a pained smile: “Until then.”

I looked up at Mephista and Dermon.

“We know what to do,” I said, handing them an Oscibird feather each. They nodded; “But no-one must know.”