Naomi's opportunity was longer in coming than she would otherwise have preferred. Though Christabel had not yet made her first direct move on Morgan when Eddie Cohen and Desdinova had approached her, that did not mean that Naomi could approach Morgan in her absence. Doing so would have warned Isaac Magnin of movement on the part of his opposition. It was matter of informational warfare. One had to know what the enemy was doing without revealing one's knowledge to the enemy.
She perforce contented herself with session work, racking up featuring credits on tracks with any band that wanted a soprano vocalist or a keyboard player for one or two songs. It paid more reliably than trying to latch onto a single band, something she had not managed since her two-year stint with Sleeping Sun.
In the meantime, she had gotten her hands on a copy of Christabel's /Shattered Harmonies/ album. To her chagrin, the violinist had made a point of thanking her in the liner notes for "bon mots and dollops of insider wisdom dispensed between recordings of B-sides and bonus tracks". To her further chagrin, the album was better than she had expected. She had figured that Christabel herself would have nothing to do with the album's production, that it had all been done by session musicians and that when called upon to perform live she would only have had to bow in time to the recorded violin parts, an undertaking rather more complicated than mere lip syncing, but not impossible for a sufficiently dedicated actor.
However, Christabel's dedication to her acting craft had driven her to do a credible job of learning the violin and picking up enough music theory to participate in the composition and arrangement of the pieces she recorded for her debut album. Though she probably let the other composers and arrangers do most of the work—Naomi had racked up a good many songwriting credits herself merely by suggesting a riff or motif that others then built upon—she had done enough to merit an arranger credit on every piece drawn from the Western canon and composition credits on every original piece.
To her mortification, she had not been paying attention when Christabel finally got her hooks into Morgan. It had been Claire Ashecroft, who had adopted her as an honorary aunt by virtue of her friendship with Claire's aunt Jacqueline Russo, that had alerted her. She had stood waiting in the back garden as Naomi fenced with shadows to stay in fighting trim, and waited until she had noticed the younger woman and sheathed her blade. "Oi, Nims. Did you know that that Crowley bird's just dropped another album?"
"I've been on holiday this week and not paying attention," said Naomi. It was the truth; she had made the point of taking a week off just to be alone and read something that had nothing whatsoever to do with music theory or the music industry. In fact, she had filched one of Jackie's trashy romance novels. "I suppose I'd better go get a copy."
"You could borrow mine," said Claire. "The first one was good study music and I figured this would be more of the same, but it's actually a little /too/ proggy. She's also got this new sideman who plays both guitar and bass at the same time, and he looks absolutely scrumptious. The liner notes are actually kinda distracting because of the photos."
Claire had given Naomi a salacious wink as she said this, as if to imply that Naomi understood what sort of distraction she was talking about. "All right. Let's have a look."
Claire had the record playing on the stereo in the living room by the time Naomi had finished washing up. She handed over the sleeve as Naomi joined her. Though Christabel Crowley's name was most prominent on the cover of /Shattered Harmonies II/, the back cover listed her sidemen. Not that Naomi needed to turn over the sleeve to recognize Morgan Cooper. He was standing back to back with Christabel, both facing the camera with teased hair, makeup, and icy stares.
Opening the gatefold, Naomi saw that whoever had done the photography had taken an equal-opportunity approach to objectifying their subjects. Men, women, and those who knew better—each was subject to a gaze intended to make them as stimulating to the viewer's libido as possible.
Claire stopped Naomi at a photo of Morgan gazing upward beneath half-lidded eyes. "That one's my favorite. Tall, dark, brooding, with smouldering green kitty eyes. You know it's only the white-haired prettyboys that turn out to be villainous, right? Pale, dark-haired bishounen always turn out to be quiet, noble types. They might not get the princess, but they always thaw the icy witchy types, especially if they're the villain's daughter and thus can't believe they're capable of true love."
"I've no notion of what you're on about," said Naomi. This was a lie; she had at least flipped through enough of Claire's manga, which the girl bought secondhand and in bulk because the retail prices for individual volumes varied in her estimation between extortion and nonconsensual buggery.
"Then you won't mind explaining why I keep finding volumes of /Divine Wings of Tragedy/ on your nightstand?"
Naomi shook her head. "You keep leaving them there, presumably when it's your turn to vacuum."
"Fair enough." Claire turned her attention back to the photo of Morgan Cooper. "I bet we could get /him/ to vacuum for us. Maybe in a little Parisian maid's outfit with kitten heels."
"Does Aunt Jackie know what sort of kinky network sites you visit when you should be sleeping?"
"She should; I keep finding new ones in /her/ browsing history."
"Dammit, Claire. I did not need to know that."
"Oh, please. You're not nearly as prudish as you pretend to be with me."
"You're fifteen. What are you going to be like when you're old enough to act on your fantasies?"
Claire's smile broadened to Cheshire cat proportions. "Insatiable." She tapped the photo of Morgan that had inspired her fancies. "So if you want this cutie you'd better get your claws in him before I do."
"I was his first kiss, so if real life is anything like the manga you read when you should be studying I don't think you've got a chance."
"Probably not," said Claire. "But why is he with Christabel Crowley? Not that she isn't kinda hot herself, but she's nowhere near your level."
That last remark raised questions about Claire's fantasy life that Naomi thought best left unanswered. "Simple truth? He was fifteen at most at the time. I didn't want to take advantage of somebody that young, so I only gave him a chaste little kiss, and then told him I was too old for him and that he should go live a life and love somebody closer to his own age."
"He's twenty now, and you're twenty-seven. That age gap isn't as problematic now as it was five years ago. You ought to show him why First Girl Wins is a legitimate trope."
/Don't tempt me./
Naomi was sure that had been a private thought until Claire eyes lit up. "Well, let's make it happen."
"I can't just go up to them and tell Christabel I've got prior claim."
"No, but you picked the wrong time to go on holiday and ignore the world," said Claire. "Apparently the new album's selling enough that Christabel is auditioning for a vocalist. Preferably one who can play the keyboards, too."
The Melody Maker ad hit Naomi's implant before Claire had finished, and it backed up her claims. "Vocalist and keyboardist wanted for new neo-Romantic heavy metal project, Crowley's Thoth. Blind audition. Hmmm..."
Claire had disppeared, only to return a few minutes later toting a headset and an old laptop whose lid was covered in decals featuring rather aggressive-looking cartoon pufferfish. One of them seemed to be brandishing a revolver in each fin. "Well, what the 'ell are you waiting for? You gonna call the bloody label and request an audition?"
"I don't need a laptop and headset for that."
"This is for me to use once you've put yourself into contention," said Claire, flashing a rather piratical grin. "Once you've done, I'm going to spoof the record label's contact and redirect everybody else's audition requests to the null device. Because we didn't pounce on this advert right away, it's likely that a few have already gotten through and put themselves on the list. This is fine; if Christabel has half a brain and if you're the only one to show up she'd probably smell a rat."
"I think you, Jackie, and I ought to have a little talk about your ethics," said Naomi. It troubled her that Claire thought she needed to cheat, and that she was willing to help Naomi rig the audition by limiting the talent pool.
"Oh, bugger the ethics," said Claire. "I overheard you and Jackie. You've got some kind of important mission from the Phoenix Society, right? You need to get close to Morgan and protect him. Helping you do that is more important than letting a bunch of randos have a shot at joining Crowley's Thoth, especially if Christabel Crowley is working for that white-haired prettyboy running AsgarTech."
"Besides," Claire added, lowering her voice. "I've seen you wearing a St. Judas medal. I might be edging toward black hat territory, but you're already there."
Naomi lifted the medal from under her blouse for Claire to see. "I wear this because I might have to kill Morgan."
"Holy shit." Claire's whispered blasphemy sounded almost reverent in its hushed intensity. "He might still love you, and you might have to kill him because he's einherjar and might run amok? This ought to be a shōjo manga. I am /so/ not missing out on this. Hurry your arse up, Nims; the audition's tomorrow and they're only taking applications until midnight."
Once Naomi made the call, Claire got to work. She worked long into the night, fielding call after call without breaking character, extemporizing as needed to convince every hopeful caller that she actually worked for Dark Eternal Records and that she was adding them to the list for Christabel's consideration. She directed each mark to a different location several kilometers away from where the audition was actually happening so that they were less likely to meet, compare notes, and figure out that they had been conned.
Once midnight had passed, Claire closed her connections, concealed her electronic trail, and shut down her computer. Slipping off the headset, she stretched and loosed a jaw-breaking yawn. "I don't think any of them suspected a thing. Damn, I'm good."
"You realize what you've done, right?"
"Yep. Social engineering. If I wasn't using a computer you could call me a confidence woman."
Naomi shook her head. "You mean a con artist? That's not exactly an honest trade."
Claire shrugged. "Depends on who I'm conning and why, doesn't it? If it's for a greater good, doesn't that justify what I'm doing?"
"No, it doesn't," said Naomi. "That's the whole point of wearing a Saint Judas medal. Necessary evils are still evil. Worse, they might not even be necessary in the first place. But we've still got to live with them."
Another shrug from Claire. "This shit's getting a bit too recondite for my taste. You needed help, and I was able to help you. That's all that matters to me."
Naomi tacitly conceded the point after considering Claire's age. At her developmental stage, she still lacked the ability to do the moral reasoning necessary to fully grasp the problematic nature of the help she had provided, and expecting her to do it anyway was itself unfair. "Will you do me a favor? Next time you're thinking of doing something like this, please ask me first. I know you don't think it's wrong, but if you run a con like this on the wrong people and it goes sideways, you could find yourself in dire trouble."
Once Claire had promised she would and scampered off to bed, Naomi stared at Morgan's photo. The lyrics of a stalker's anthem that had entered the public domain decades ago sprang unbidden to her lips. /Maybe I'll see you tomorrow,/ she thought before putting the record away.