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The Incidental Benefits of Playing the Bass

There was a long moment of silence in the office when Cal finished his proposal. Powell had been taking notes, a bad habit in a field man, but a harmless eccentricity at his elevation. It had been a long time since anyone had made the mistake of thinking that he needed the aide memoire, but he seemed to be studying them now. Cal Turner took it calmly. It was Harry Brooks who shifted restlessly, and Harry Brooks who Powell’s gaze pierced when he finally looked up from the pad.

“Well, Brooks, what do you think?”

“What do I think? I think it’s a ridiculous risk, it’s – ”

He stumbled as he caught Cal’s eye. They’d been partners too long to deceive one another, and Cal wasn’t even trying to conceal his amusement.

“– it’s not damn funny.”

“Oh but it is. You’re protesting because I’m suggesting something that puts me at risk, right? You?”

“Me.” He said it flatly, taking none of his partner’s mood. “And why not? I’ve never suggested anything that put me at that kind of risk, not for a penny ante job like this.”

Powell raised an eyebrow at that, but he didn’t intervene. He was interested to see how they resolved it.

“I know you haven’t.” He dropped his levity, and Harry grudgingly let his hackles subside. “But it certainly looks that way sometimes to anyone who doesn’t know what you can do.”

“And I do know what you can do. And this is still crazy.”

“You might know what I can do but – ” the glint of mischief had returned to his manner “ – you’ve never played the bass … ”

*

Harry moved through the reception on autopilot, exchanging the briefest civilities and passing on. It was proving easier than he had expected to fulfil his own brief – to accept the damn invitation and try to look suspicious, as Cal had had it – but for reasons he disliked. Looking suspicious was the antithesis of his life’s work, but Cal’s presence at the end of the room put a note of unease in his mind that made an act unnecessary. He was exactly what he seemed, a suspicious young attaché from the most suspicious of all departments, invited in his own right and watched as a matter of course.

Beyond that nebulous unease his only concern was that his eye would stray too often to the band, but that was easily dealt with. He only hoped his opposite numbers developed migraines trying to establish a link between the randomly selected objects of his attention.

There was a hiatus in the music that made it natural to glance towards the band, and for a moment he was at liberty to watch them, an amateur five piece on their first public gig, coming together briefly in discussion before they plunged into the next piece. Cal Turner was at the back, and half hidden by his instrument, but still more exposed than Harry liked to see him, whatever Powell had said. Harry hadn’t had an alternative, and that had left him without an argument. He himself would be too carefully watched to do the job, and Cal’s lowly official position left him no chance of an invitation. The band had solved that one, Harry had to admit that much, and it hadn’t been hard for Powell to have their services offered in terms that excited no suspicion but made a refusal discourteous.

So there he was in the spotlight, where it was insane for him to be, murdering jazz standards in the name of easy listening. Harry wondered if it hurt his soul to do it, but they’d done worse things, both of them, than that. He shrugged, and turned his attention back to an innocent secretary in the crowd, struggling to see the unease that made his role so easy to play as an unmixed blessing.

*

Harry was on his third coffee and his fifth review of a perfectly straightforward report when Cal finally reached the anteroom to Powell’s office. His tread on the stairs had been almost unfamiliar, and he was wearing an air of restrained delight that Harry was more used to experiencing than seeing.

He glanced pointedly at his watch and asked sourly

“You finally made it back then?”

He felt a heel as soon as he’d said it, but Cal’s mood was irrepressible.

“I had to drop off the goods.”

He collapsed neatly into a chair, and Harry passed him coffee absently, knowing from Cal’s sardonic thanks that the automatic solicitude had been recognised as a truer gesture than his welcome.

Harry asked no further questions. If his own behaviour was any guide he would get no useful answers. Instead he began to apply himself, at last, to his report, but Cal allowed him no peace to complete it.

“Have you seen the tapes?”

A grunted assent did not discourage his interest.

“It went okay?”

Harry closed the report and tossed it aside, for the first time showing his own pleasure in a good job slickly run, even if the job had been so little his affair.

“It went perfectly.”

It had, though only the band’s last scene had taken place in the open street and been recorded for review. Harry recapped it enthusiastically, five men in dark clothes bumbling back and forth to their hired van, coming first with their instruments and then with amps and leads and all the unfamiliar paraphernalia of a professional gig. They had brought out power leads belonging to their hosts and forgotten their own mics, and that was before they really got started. They were clearly flying high on the buzz of performance, and even one of the security guards had allowed himself to be drawn in to their happy chaos with good humour.

Played fast, it might have had a look of circus clowning about it, but like a circus clown Harry had watched it in complete seriousness, and admired its artistry. Even knowing the men, even looking for the switch, it had taken all his concentration to see that it took only four of the band to generate so much industrious bustle, that Cal had joined them only in the final moments.

“… but I still say,” Harry concluded, “that it was an utterly unreasonable risk.”

“You’re not going to admit it, even now?”

“Admit what?”

But to Cal the pose was transparent.

“Say it.”

“You ought to, you know.”

They turned to find Powell waiting in his doorway, and Harry threw up his hands in defeat.

“Okay, you were right.”

“And?”

He held out less than thirty seconds under their combined gaze.

“And nobody remembers the bass player.”

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