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ON THE LINE
by S.J. Rozan

Genre: Mystery, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

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Crashing dark chords smothered the cellphone's impertinent chirp, but the ringtone was "Ride of the Valkyries," so it penetrated, and I stopped. I was learning a Brahms Sonata. After weeks it had started to come together into something I could feel good about, so good that I was up, working on it, at what is, for me, early morning: half-past eight, with a mug of powerful black coffee and a big, bright, late-fall morning beyond the windows.

I hate interruptions when I'm at the piano; hate them so much, I used to turn the phone off. Now, though, I just ignore it if it rings. Except for this one number, the reason I leave it on. I leaned from the piano bench, grinning, and reached for the phone, which was still squeaking out those opening Valkyrie notes. In my world, Wagner only trumps Brahms when Wagner means Lydia Chin.

"Hey," I said. "What's up?"

Silence, unlike Lydia; and an odd tone to it. Then she said, "Nothing good."

With those two words came darkness: anger, fear, and something else. Warning? My skin went cold. "What does that mean?"

The answer didn't come from Lydia. It came from a different voice, relaxed and mocking in rhythm, but inhuman in tone: thin, robotic. Deliberately, electronically altered. "It means, asshole, your girlfriend got jacked."

I was on my feet, heart pounding. "What the -- Who are you?"

"Come on, you don't know me?"

"What's going on?"

"Jesus Christ! You fucked up so many guys you can't keep track!"

"Who are you? What do you want?"

"No." In a flash, joviality gone, the metallic voice dropped. "It's what you want. You want your girlfriend to live. Or am I wrong?"

"You're right, and -- "

"Then find her. It's a game, get it? You find her, she lives. You don't, she dies. You following that?"

"Whoever the hell you are, leave her alone. You have business with me, bring it on."

"It's on, buddy-boy. And if I were you I'd get down to it."

"Get down to what?"

"What did I just say?"

"How am I supposed to find her?"

"Well, lucky for you, I'm going to help. Clues, evidence, all that shit. I know you like that shit. So we'll have fun.

Now get going."