“I didn’t mean to kill him.”
“No?” Carla glared at him. “Then why shoot him?”
“He needed to get shot. Living or dying, though—that was between him and God.”
“Call me a skeptic, Bernard, but I think the holes you put in him might’ve had something to do with it,” said Carla.
“Do you know what he was doing when I found him?” asked Bernard.
“Yes, and I don’t care. What I do care about is what he won’t be doing ever again – playing bass in the trio. And that’s between you and me, Bernard, not God nor anybody else.”
Bernard’s eyes flicked left and right down the hallway. Carla could tell that he didn’t like the amount of noise she was making, but she didn’t care. It was her apartment building, dammit, and he was the one who’d show up unannounced at three in the morning after shooting her bass player dead in a whorehouse. She’d only just changed out of her work clothes, for god’s sake.
A few inquisitive neighbors poked their heads out of doorways along the hall. About half of them were human, while the rest were a mix of different species. That’s what Carla got for living on the slope between the Old City and the New City. Even the city had different names here; the non-humans usually used the old Kolanth name, Kannan, while the humans called it Zero.
The building was a narrow wedge slipped in between two mismatched city blocks. Sal found the place originally; over lunch at the Cafe Sin Nombré he described it to her as “a leftover building, in an accidental city, on the inhospitable continent of an overlooked planet.” But the rent was cheap, and the residents of her building usually refrained from eating one another in public. Carla had dealt with worse.
“That is why I am here,” continued Bernard. “I am here to settle up.”
Carla tilted her head up to look Bernard in the face, and raised an eyebrow. Bernard was big, even for a Kolanth; if he tried to come in without stooping, he’d hit his head on the doorframe.
Bernard had two other Kol with him, dressed in dark suits that were too rich for the shabby building. He waved to one of his associates. “Albus.” The other Kolanth brought forward a tall, black instrument case.
“His instrument,” explained Bernard. “It is unharmed.”
Carla stepped aside and waved Albus through. He was slightly smaller than Bernard, and probably weighed twice as much as she did. She could feel the floorboards flex under his talons; Kol did not bother with shoes, but instead shined their black talons to match the dress shoes of men in suits and tuxedos. The practice made her wish that she also had eighteen-inch blades instead of toes . . . but that would probably complicate using the piano’s pedals.
Albus set the bass against the wall carefully, as if it was made of priceless crystal. Bernard knew to enough be careful with the old upright, she’d give him that.
“Thanks,” she said, grudgingly, “but unless you’ve been working on your scales recently, I don’t have anyone to play it.”
It was meant as a joke, but Bernard took it seriously. “I have a brother. He is an excellent player. He will join you tomorrow.”
“Wait—wait, that’s not how it works, Bernard.” She liked saying his name, because he never said hers and she could tell that it gave her words power. “You can’t just pick up some schmuck off the street and drop him into the middle of the gig. He has to know our tunes. He has to know our style. Do you know how hard it is to find a decent bassist in Zero? Or on Klio, anywhere?”
“He is an excellent bass player,” repeated Bernard, “and he will join you tomorrow. You will make good music together.”
“I appreciate the gesture, Bernard,” she said his name again. “Have him come to the audition, if he’s so good. We’ll be in the Emerald Room at two.” She was tired, and her left hand hurt from covering basslines all night. She wanted Bernard to leave.
“He cannot be there at two.”
“He’ll be in school.”
“Christ, Bernard, how old is he?”
“He is old enough that God has revealed his gift.”
Carla shook her head. “Tell him to talk to me when he’s old enough to buy a drink.” Bernard tried to say something, but she cut him off. “Thanks for the bass. Just don’t shoot my next bassist, alright?”
Bernard bowed his head. “I will not shoot your next bassist.” The Kol left.
Carla went inside to make a sandwich and put on a Bill Evans record, still bouncing between anger and exhaustion. Hopefully the 650-year old recording would help her calm down enough to sleep.
The baby grand piano in the Emerald Room was a decent enough instrument. Some of the other rooms at Beelo’s Showroom and Private Lounge had better instruments, but most of them were worse and Carla considered herself lucky. If she ever got the gig in the VIP lounge, she was never going to let go of the piano upstairs.
She came in early to practice. Carla had started taking her coffee in the local style, brewed thick like motor oil in a tin kettle and then strained through a wire mesh into a cup with brown sugar and a dash of cardamom. Somehow the scent of the coffee had become one with the yellowed keys and the quiet mornings spent with ancient Horace Silver recordings. After being stuck in Zero for three years, the coffee was seeping into the music through the cracks in harmonies and the tiny distances between beats. The taste of the music was changing, the longer she lived here.
“G minor,” she said to herself at the keyboard. “This is a G minor coffee today.” The ceiling fans hacked out a weird polyrhythm in response, spinning over the stacked and upended chairs.
Carla took a minute to wind up the old mechanical metronome. She worked through scales and arpeggios, major and minor, moving keys by fourths, then fifths, then half steps. Carla played them fortissimo, filling the room with two-handed patterns, and then pianissimo, tiptoeing through the exercises until the boy with the mop on the other side of the room had to strain to hear her. She stopped a few times to rewind the metronome; it was old and nearly worn out, and she’d had a replacement on order for almost five months now at the shop down the street.
“They’ll get the new gate up before that damn metronome gets here,” she said to herself when the mechanism slipped and threw her off.
Twenty years ago, Klio was just another end point on the vast network of FTL gates anchored around Old Sol. It was one of the furthest, at the edge of the Sol master gate’s range, but otherwise unremarkable. They had one transit a week; two, if the exchange price for lithium warranted it.
Then, of course, there was The Accident.
The replacement gate was somewhere in deep space, decelerating in preparation to enter Klio’s orbit five years from now. Some nights, Carla went up on the roof of her building drunk and wished it speed. Maybe when it got here she’d be able to buy a decent metronome.
Fortunately a number of FTL data relays had survived The Accident, and when bandwidth allowed the Ministry of Historical Culture would send important works of art through onto the mainframes in the Volksland. Local industry was a decade away from being able to reproduce optical disks or solid-state memory (the discs were easy, it was the lasers that were causing them problems), but there was another medium that was within their reach:
Three crates of LPs were tucked behind the piano. Carla pulled out an Art Blakey record with Horace Silver on piano; she knew the A side already, but there was an unnamed blues on the B side that might have some useful material. She set up the record player on top of the piano.
Carla played the track until it reached the piano solo. After a few seconds, she lifted the needle, and then worked out what Silver had just played on her own. It was suspiciously easy; she set the needle down again and did another few seconds, and then a few more. Finally she let the needle stay, and played along with Silver through the end of the blues.
Carla sighed; she’d already transcribed this solo, and then forgotten that she had. It was happening more and more often these days.
Maybe there was something worth learning in one of the other solos. Carla started over from the beginning of the blues; the alto solo didn’t make much of an impression on her, but Clifford Brown was playing a lot of trumpet and she spent an hour dissecting a few of his turnarounds.
Around 1:30, she set up for the audition. Carla had arranged for one of the servers to come in and manage the applicants in exchange for a few Francs under the table. It felt like everyone in Zero wanted to work at Beelo’s, and she didn’t want to deal with the crowd.
Sal showed up with his cymbals and stick bag about the same time. The kit was still on the bandstand from the night before.
“Morning, Salvatore. You ready for this?” she asked him. Sal had been working the same Italian liner that Carla had gotten stuck on, and they’d jumped ship together. He had the face of an old basset hound and forearms like cured leather.
“Can’t wait. I haven’t been to the circus in ages,” he deadpanned. Sal punctuated his observation with a quick, goofy polka two-step. It dissolved into a brief cacophony of snare drum rolls before coming back together as an Art Blakey-esque tumbao pattern on the toms. He stopped. “Well?”
“First victim, please!” called Carla to the girl outside.
There was an old cello with two strings left in the back room. Carla and Sal left it on the bandstand, up front. Anyone who came in and reached for it was immediately disqualified. This took care of about half the applicants.
Anyone who brought their own instrument or looked confused and asked where the bass was got a shot.
Carla thought it was a poor showing even by Zero’s standards. The form got lost, tempos dragged and rushed, and famous songs were butchered one by one. Carla started cutting them off in the middle of tunes. “Next.” “Next.” “Next!”
The 17th applicant was a tall, greasy-haired man with long callouses on the first two fingers of his right hand. He picked up the bass, adjusted the tuning slightly, and then looked at Carla.
“Body and Soul,” she said.
“Stock key, or something else?” he asked.
“Let’s do it in D,” she said, moving it up a half step. If he was bluffing, they’d know soon enough.
Carla played a short rubato intro, and then came in on the melody. Sal joined with his brushes on the snare, and the newcomer came in right on time with no cue. Carla nodded.
The second time through she started altering harmonies. The bass player followed her and even anticipated one of her tritone substitutions. Carla nodded again.
Sal hinted at a double-time feel when they reached the bridge, and with a hop-skip-jump they were off. The newcomer followed adroitly enough through the rest of the form, and as they got ready to loop around into the next chorus Carla stepped back to let the bassist solo.
She listened carefully through the first 16 bars. The newcomer was running a lot of notes up and down the bass. It was fluent enough and worked with the changes, though there wasn’t any discernible melody that she could pick up on. She shrugged and got ready to come back in with the melody as they approached the bridge.
But the newcomer either didn’t hear her or chose to ignore her musical cues. Carla stepped back again and let him continue to noodle through the rest of the form. “Bridge,” she called out, intending to finish the tune with the melody. The bass player nodded, but started playing the melody before Carla could step in. She let him have the bridge, then stomped in over him on the last 8 bars to finish the song. The bass player huffed a dramatic sigh, but let her do so.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Shane. I get the gig?”
“Depends. Are you going to try and play over me on every song? Because nobody’s coming to the Emerald Room hear bass solos.”
Shane shrugged. “Yeah, whatever.”
Carla pulled Sal aside to talk. “What do you think?”
“You know, in the shower, when your washcloth gets all dried out and stiff in the shape you left it in?”
“I guess so.”
“And then you get in the shower and get it wet again, and it gradually unbends and sags into a wet floppy rag?”
“What does this have to do with–”
“That’s what his time is like.”
Carla sighed. “I know. But he has ears. Can you live with it? I think it’s the best we’re going to get.”
“Hire him. But let me call him Washcloth. It’s only fair.”
Carla and Sal came back. Shane was practicing something complicated and inscrutable. They waited for him to stop, but he didn’t. “Well?” he finally asked, continuing to play.
“You’ve got the gig, if you want it,” Carla told him.
“I want 200 Francs a night.”
Carla laughed in his face. “I’ll give you 75.”
(Go on to Part 2)