Though Christabel could have replied to Morgan's text message a couple of weeks ago, she had decided it was better to let him sweat a little. It was only what he deserved for not having the wit to realize that she wanted him to ask her out despite the obvious clues she had provided. /I gave him my address and left a kiss printed in lipstick. What more did the man need, an engraved invitation?/
Instead, since he had said he'd be at the Flaming Telepath's next open mic night she decided to take him at his word. She would elbow her way to the front of the crowd and listen to him—turnabout being fair play.
It had not been hard to get a copy of the setlist; the Flaming Telepath's proprietor was not as clever in his choice of passphrases as he thought, and it had been easy for one of AsgarTech's AIs to brute-force his account by selecting random lines from a corpus of Blue Öyster Cult lyrics. Morgan had gotten the last slot. It was a tough position; by that time most of the patrons would be trying either to get drunk or get laid, and the rest would care mainly for maintaining their current states of inebriation.
Since nobody else on the setlist mattered to Christabel, she had no compunction about showing up in the middle of the set before Morgan's. However, instead of seeing Morgan take the stage, another band stepped up and launched into some kind of recondite instrumental excursion into technical death metal that seemed to change time signatures every time Christabel thought she had gotten a grip on the music.
The worst of it came from a guy who was playing an instrument with entirely too many strings[fn:6], tapping out a bass line with one hand and using the other to provide counterpoint to the lead guitarist. He was shoegazing, his hair spilling over his shoulders until the lead guitarist started a duel. The melody shifted back and forth between the two, and when it shifted away from the lead guitarist the other musician seemed to come to life, his hair whipping about as he let his body move to the music he mercilessly wrenched from his instrument.
And while his hair was whipping about, Christabel saw he was wearing a t-shirt with /her/ name on it. Worse, she recognized motifs from /her/ album in his playing as the band broke down into a jam session. He had taken her melodies, and set them to bass lines of his own, bass lines more intricate than those her sideman had recorded.
A drunk standing beside her put his hands around his mouth to create a jury-rigged megaphone. "Jerk off backstage, assholes."
Before she could stop herself, she had him by the ear. Pulling him down to ensure she had his undivided attention, she said, "If you can't appreciate what they're doing up there then fuck off to some other bar." She let him go, but not before grinding one of her spike heels into his foot for emphasis. A bouncer showed up before he could make plain his opinion of such rough treatment, and dragged him away as the band played on, too absorbed in their jam to be perturbed.
The set soon ended, sooner than she would have liked. The lead guitarist threw his picks into the crowd as if he were a headliner and not some nobody playing an open mic event. "We're The Epstein-Barr Band. Look us up next time you're in the market for some infectious grooves. Goodnight!"
She was in the alley behind the bar before the members of the Epstein-Barr Band, and the lead guitarist gave her a once-over. "Hey, weren't you up front? I saw how you handled that rude guy."
Christabel shrugged. "Sorry about that. But some guys forget their manners after they've had one too many."
"No kidding, lady. Seriously, though, it was hella cool seeing you grab that guy by the ear. You looked like a teacher on her night off."
The man wearing her t-shirt showed up, his instrument slung over his shoulder in its case. "Hello, Christabel. Thanks for showing up."
The lead guitarist glanced between the two. "Hey, Cooper, you know her?"
"Yeah. Been listening to her album."
"So I noticed," said Christabel, putting her hands on her hips. "I heard some of my riffs while you guys were jamming. Why the bloody hell didn't you tell me you were so good?"
Morgan raised his hands to protest. "I'm not that good. I've only been playing a few years. And this is the first band I've been in." He jerked a thumb toward the lead guitarist. "Epstein here can tell you as much."
Epstein nodded. "Yeah, this is his first band. If he had more experience he'd know better than to upstage the frontman."
A flush reddened Morgan's face. "Sorry, man. Once I got into it I couldn't resist."
"Yeah, I know. And you're good. But you're not right for the Epstein-Barr Band. We're just here to have a good time, and you take this way too seriously."
Morgan nodded, but his entire face seemed to fall into dejection. "All right. It was good jamming with you guys, though. Good luck."
He began to walk away, as if he had already forgotten about the band. This Christabel could understand. However, he also seemed to have forgotten about her, and this simply would not do.
"Hey," said Epstein. "You're Christabel Crowley, right? Any chance I could buy you a—"
He was on the ground before he could finish the proposition, clutching the jaw that Christabel had shattered with the diamond-cluster knuckle duster she kept in her pocket. Straddling Epstein, she glared at the others. "Anybody have any objections?"
Since nobody did, she left them to get help for their bandmate and followed Morgan. It proved hard going, for one could only walk so quickly while wearing heels and running was out of the question. Fortunately, she had his address because he had texted her. «Wait for me, dammit.»
She caught up with him a block later, waiting at a streetcorner. "Epstein was right," said Morgan. "It means too much to me. I want it too damn much."
"And I want /you/," said Christabel. "I was there to hear /you/ play. I was so disappointed when it turned out to be some band that named themselves after a disease. But then I heard you playing my music and saw you wearing my t-shirt. I don't know if you believe in fate, but it feels to me like there's a connection between us."
"I know," said Morgan, "But it doesn't feel right. You were a complainant in a case I worked. Now I can't stop listening to your album. Your music has infected mine. And when I see the spark in your eyes..." He gazed up at the sky for a moment as the clouded skies began to spit down rain. "I haven't felt like this since I was a teenager. I'm not comfortable with it."
Christabel placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. When he failed to shrug it off, she stood on tiptoe so that she could whisper in his ear. "It's called infatuation. It's the first step toward falling in love." Before he could react, she caught his lips with hers, stealing the barest brush of a kiss. Backing away just a moment, she held his not-quite-human forest-green gaze. "You can let yourself fall. I'm here to catch you."
"Why?" Though he had not elaborated, Christabel suspected she knew what Morgan meant. The psychological profiles in his dossier all indicated that he was an earnest young man and an incorrigible romantic, but was sure that romance was a privilege he did not deserve. Coming from him now, his /why/ meant /why would you want somebody like me/.
"That asshole had no idea what he just threw away," said Christabel, pressing a deeper, lingering kiss upon him. "But I know a treasure when I see one, and I want you for myself. I've seen you live. Now I want to know what you sound like in a studio."
"You don't have to kiss me just because you want to jam with me."
Christabel did it again, and this time his control slipped just enough for him to kiss her back, however tentatively. "Since you can't seem to take a hint, I also want to know what you sound like in my bedroom. But since you're shy we can take it slow."
[fn:6] Morgan Cooper plays the Chapman Stick, an instrument developed by jazz guitarist Emmett Chapman in the 1970s to facilitate polyphonic two-handed tapping. It's the same instrument used by Tony Levin (King Crimson, Liquid Tension Experiment).