Christabel leaned back in her chair as another singer finished their solo audition. This one was an alto accompanying herself on a skillfully played hurdy-gurdy, and while many other bands would have been happy to bring her on board, she wasn't what Christabel wanted for her new band, Crowley's Thoth. She was one of those folk metal types, and she had a different style in mind for her new band. She even had a name for it: black tie metal. The music would be complex, the lyrics literary and erudite. Between her violin and Morgan's stick guitar, all she needed was Naomi Bradleigh on vocals and keyboards.
Nevertheless, she had been obliged to hold open auditions for vocalists and keyboard players. Even if her record label hadn't insisted upon open auditions, Morgan might have suspected something was off. More importantly, if she had reached out directly to Naomi, or if Isaac Magnin had found away to arrange a meeting, Naomi herself might have smelled a rat and refused.
Thus it was necessary to put on this sham of an open audition and at least give the first couple dozen people to sign up a chance to waste their time and effort. Likewise, it was necessary to pick half a dozen for the shortlist, and give them a chance to jam with her and Morgan to see if they jelled as a band. The hard part was that the first audition was a blind audition. She had no way of knowing if Naomi would even show up until they heard her singing in the studio.
In the meantime, Christabel had to put the alto with the hurdy-gurdy out of her misery. She reached for the mic, ready to dash her hopes.
"I thought she was good," said Morgan. "Certainly the best we've had so far."
"That's hardly saying much," said Christabel, withdrawing her hand. "First there was the baritone who couldn't stay on key. Then there was the tenor who couldn't stay on beat. After him came that mezzo-soprano who sang in one key and played in another."
"Can we at least shortlist this one?"
"Must we?" Lending credence to Morgan's opinions was part of the game she had to play, though fairness demanded of Christabel that she at least admit that his judgment was sound. If she hadn't been set on a particular performer, this alto with the hurdy-gurdy would have deserved further consideration.
"We can always strike her name if we get some stronger contenders."
"Fair enough," said Christabel. She keyed the mic again. "Excuse me. Candidate number five, are you still there?"
"Yes. I was just packing up."
"Please stick around for the next round."
There was a gasp from the other side. "Really? Thank you!"
Letting go of the mic, Christabel considered Morgan. His fashion sense had improved under her; she had not succeeded in persuading him to wear a necktie yet, let alone a cravat, but at least he had taken to wearing open-collared silk shirts under his biker's jacket, and he no longer wore the torn and faded jeans he used to favor. "I still don't think this one's gonna work out. And I really don't like the way the hurdy-gurdy sounds."
"You're looking for a certain something."
"Yeah. But don't ask me what."
"You'll know it when you hear it, right?"
"Yeah." She stood up, stretched, and then leaned over Morgan. Gazing into his eyes, she stole a quick kiss and added. "You'll know it too. I'm holding out for somebody to whom we can both say hell yeah."
"Fair enough," said Morgan. "Who's next?"
Christabel checked the audition forms, which had been redacted to strip out identifying information. "A classically trained singer and pianist." Keying the mic, she spoke to the candidate. "You can start whenever you're ready."
"Thank you," came a voice Christabel instantly recognized. It was a Londoner's accent acquired by honest means, with a hint of Devonshire farm girl beneath. "The advertisement didn't specify any particular piece, but I had an idea for something original while I was on my way."
Christabel keyed the mic again. "Go ahead."
Descending chords pulled forth from the piano by a deft and gentle hand traced a dreamlike path toward silent melancholy. A right-handed tremolo shattered the silence, as if the instrument had awoken with a racing heart. A new left-handed melody rose urgent and insistent out of the lower register. Once the motif had fully developed, the tremelo became a counterpoint. Melody and counterpoint pulsed in rapid syncopation, and Christabel was already hard-pressed to keep up when the candidate began to sing, using a crystalline soprano voice as an instrument. The vocal melody was a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis she had played with either hand, until it reached its climax and faded away, leaving the piano to recapitulate the initial motifs.
Christabel sat dumbfounded, unsure if the auditory assault she had just endured was a brilliant new composition or a dissonant, pretentious mess meriting prosecution as an aesthetic atrocity.
Morgan, however, had grabbed his stick guitar and was playing it unplugged, working out the piano parts. Though the unamplified instrument was barely audible, it seemed to Christabel that Morgan was getting it mostly right despite playing by ear a composition he had heard but once.
As if realizing that her eyes were upon him, Morgan looked up and gazed wide-eyed at her. "We need to get into a studio with her right now. She's brilliant."
"I have no idea what the hell she just played."
"Who gives a shit? I think the intensity with which she plays and sings is something Crowley's Thoth needs."
"And what about the other candidates?"
"Other candidates be damned," said Morgan. "Didn't you recognize that voice? Or the way she plays? That's Naomi fucking Bradleigh auditioning for /our/ band.
"So what?" Christabel's indifference was for show; she had half-expected that she might have to persuade Morgan that they should take Bradleigh on, but his insistence simplified matters. There was no need to give him the hard sell when he had already convinced himself. Whether it was on the strength of Bradleigh's reputation or that of her bewildering performance was of no concern to Christabel. Her philosophy was one expressible in two words: /whatever works./
She followed Morgan, who had grabbed his stick guitar and left the control booth. He held the recording room door open for her, but seemed transfixed by the snow-blonde and scarlet-eyed figure seated at the piano.
Naomi rose from the piano and smoothed the black dress she wore over a burgundy blouse, and extended an elegant, long-fingered hand toward Christabel. "Hello. I'm Naomi Bradleigh. You must be Christabel Crowley. I believe we've met before."
Christabel took her hand and gave it a polite shake. "I hadn't expected that /you/ would audition, Ms. Bradleigh."
This was a lie; she had hoped from the start to snare Bradleigh, being sure that Morgan would eventually come to regret his initial enthusiasm for her presence in the band, but sometimes the only way was to try to arrange favorable circumstances for the universe to give you what you wanted.
"I hadn't expected to be at loose ends," said Naomi, so when I saw the advert on the Melody Maker site I thought it would at least be better than moping because yet another band fell apart around me. Recording guest vocals on B-sides and bonus tracks isn't the worst way to make a living, but I had hoped for more."
"I'm sure it wasn't your fault," said Morgan.
That much Christabel could agree with, but she knew better than to admit her knowledge that credit for Naomi's recent setbacks could be laid at Isaac Magnin's feet. Though he had been reluctant to use his influence to the detriment of his daughter's career, she had persuaded him that doing things her way would better serve his wider purpose. "I don't want to say I'm glad you had the opportunity to audition for Crowley's Thoth, but I'd be lying if I tried to pretend that it wouldn't be a coup for me if you, Morgan, and I could get a tight band going."
"Well," said Naomi. "I guess all we need is a drummer."
"I've got that sorted," said Christabel, patting the prototype CARL-9000 unit manufactured by Palmer Audio[fn:7]. It was another example of the utility of friends in high places; somebody owed Isaac a favor, and as a result she got some useful equipment. "So, I'm on violin, Morgan's on the stick, and you're on keyboards and vocals."
Naomi blinked a couple of times before giving Morgan an appraising look. "Well, well. I knew there was a bloke named Morgan Cooper playing the Chapman Stick on /Shattered Harmonies II/, but I didn't think it would be /you/."
/Oh, no you don't./ Jealousy welled up, tasting to Christabel rather like acid reflux. /He's mine./ Rather than be overtly possessive, however, she kept her tone neutral. "Have you worked together before?"
"Not really," said Morgan. "I was working as a bouncer at a bar Naomi frequently played." He turned away too slowly to keep the bright flush of his embarrassment from Christabel's view. "I had a crush on her. I'm over it, though."
/You'd better not be,/ Christabel thought as she turned to Naomi. "Morgan and I are currently dating. That won't be a problem for you, will it?"
"Please don't take this as judgment on you," said Naomi, and Christabel suspected that what she'd say next would be precisely that. "But when I'm in a band I don't date the other members. It avoids a lot of unnecessary trouble."
"That works for me," said Morgan, but Christabel was sure that there was something about his expression that suggested he was telling a white lie.
Rather than call him on it, Christabel turned the conversation back to business. "So, is there a piece we all know that we can run through together?"
"Acid Rain." Morgan and Naomi glanced at one another as they realized they had both suggested the same classic progressive metal instrumental. Fortunately, it was one Christabel knew as well; she had been surreptitiously listening to Morgan's favorite playlists since before they had met.
[fn:7]an AI-enabled drum machine. Its name stands for "Computer Assisted Rhythm Logic"; along with the name of its manufacturer it's a shoutout to Carl Palmer (as in Emerson, Lake & Palmer).