Piano Forte

Fandom: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Category: gen

Rating: G

Word Count: 736


I wouldn’t have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it with my own ears.

The club was dimly lit, smoky as a glass of single malt scotch, and filled with so many people that there was barely room to stand. The flickering candles on each table added to the heat of the room, beaded men’s faces with sweat and sparkled across many a daring decolletage, but the meager light could not penetrate the thick air.

The only significant illumination came from the piano, where a man sat in a spot of light, playing. The moody jazz scales that his fingers coaxed from the instrument were entrancing; men leaned back, letting the music wash over them, the women leaned forward, swaying to the syncopated strains and trying to catch the pianist’s eye through the fringe of damp blond hair. His face was washed in shadows.

He didn’t see them, didn’t see me, as I struggled upstream toward him. His eyes were closed, and he was entirely invested in the music. Fingers undulating across the keys, his body rocking with the time, his ear tuned into the piano and away from all outside distractions. He was oblivious of the crowd, the smoke, the heat—of everything except the sound.

My hand descended to his shoulder, and I was surprised by the heat I felt through the fabric of his coat. His fingers froze on the keyboard for an instant, then quickly pounded out a descant to an abrupt ending, and the spotlight winked out like a candle.

The crowd sighed in remorse at the cessation of music, but when the spotlight reappeared, a different man was sitting on the bench, blinking in surprise at the crowd through a half empty glass of whiskey.

We were through the kitchen and out the back door before the music began again, hesitant and tinny-sounding, muffled by the walls and murmurs of the crowd. My hand on his arm slowed him.

“Where did you learn to play jazz like that?”

He shook his head and finger-combed his hair, drawing in great breaths of cool night air. “Where it was born.”

“I didn’t know you’d been to New Orleans.”

He laughed. Flapping his coat to cool himself as we walked, I glimpsed the harness of his shoulder holster against the white of his dress shirt. How he endured the heat wearing that rig is beyond me… I guess he just didn’t notice while he was focused on the music. He gets that way in the lab, too, sometimes.

“Not New Orleans,” he said, after a while, straightening his tie. “Jazz is born where it is — not just in a single city or time or person.”

Afraid to ask questions of ‘where’ and ‘when’ – lest the unusual fountain of information suddenly dry up — I maintained a hopeful silence.

We reached the car and he raised his hand. I tossed the keys smartly and he closed his fingers over them. He opened the door, then leaned across the cabin of the car and said, “I once had the privilege of meeting Stan Tracey during a transatlantic voyage. One night, his horn player was ill — mal de mer – and he called upon the audience for a replacement.”

“You played with Stan Tracey? That’s — unbelievable!” I said. “Truly. I don’t believe you.”

He shrugged. “I was young. He made an impression.”

“I guess so.” I slipped into the car and gave him directions.

After a few miles, as we neared our destination, he handed me his Special so I could check his ammunition clip. The weapon was hot to the touch.

“Do you always carry a gun when you play jazz?”

“When I play Chopin, too.”

There was no more time to talk. We had a THRUSH nest to flush out. Those fingers I had seen deftly dancing across ivory keys were just as light and deliberate on the trigger of a gun, and knotted in a fist, as heavy and brash as the beat of a bass drum. As always, we worked together, a well-timed duet of danger. And we came out of it, if not undamaged, certainly undiminished.

As we drove back to UNCLE headquarters, I could hear him humming, despite the split lip. The music was still inside him. I wished I could hear it, too, but my ears were still ringing from the flash grenades.

I wonder if he really can play Chopin…


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