Allan Cochran, humming softly to himself, arrived at San Francisco Airport's Gate 84 check-in counter at the same moment as a pale, harassed-looking woman.

"You first," he smiled, stepping back.

"Are you sure?" She held up a thick, brown envelope. "I'm checking in 122 people."

"You're very persuasive," Allan said, handing his ticket folder and photo ID to the ticket agent. He turned back to the woman. "Is this a group tour or just a very big family?"

"Both. It's the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. We finished a concert tour in the Far East yesterday. If you can imagine how grumpy any family would be after 19 cities in 21 days, you've got the right idea."

"The harmony's gone?"

"Almost all of it. There's a rumor that two of the trumpeters are still talking to each other, but it hasn't been confirmed." The gate attendant, a short, blond man with an ill-advised mustache, stamped a boarding pass, slipped it into Allan's ticket folder, and returned it, along with the ID. "You'll be in Row 22, Seat B, sir."

"You're taking the place of our top violinist," said the woman with the envelope.

"Pardon?" Allan replied.

"For three weeks, 22B has been Jacob Elston's seat. Everyone gets the same seat for the whole tour; it's less confusing that way. But Jacob flew down to Los Angeles early this morning for some recording work - on a film score, I think. You'll be sitting next to his wife, Jessica, who is both a great cellist and the nicest person in the whole orchestra. You'll enjoy talking to her."

From the concourse behind them, a heavily accented voice boomed, "Has anyone seen one of our road managers? I'd trade them all for a good horn player. Of course, I'd trade anything for a good horn player."

Out in the corridor stood a tall man with approximately 25 people gathered around him. His hair, mustache, and goatee were all of the same devil-red hue, giving him a commanding, almost forbidding presence.

"Our fearless leader," the woman said without turning to look. "He's had a case of the sniffles and probably wants a tissue."

"A difficult man?" asked Allan.

"Miklós Jékely needs an extra seat just for his ego."

"Who is he, your conductor?"

Her weary expression eased into a half-smile. "Miklós would be devastated to hear that someone on his planet doesn't know him."

Allan shrugged. "I like jazz - Ellington, Beiderbecke, Miles Davis. I'm afraid that Beethoven, Mozart, and all the rest of them just sound the same to me."

Her smile broadened. "Would you mind coming over and saying that to Miklós? In front of his adoring fans? It would be the highlight of my year!"

"Thanks for the offer, but I've learned to let sleeping dogs lie."

"Too bad. He throws great tantrums - some of the best I've seen."

Allan regarded the famous conductor and realized that there was, in fact, something familiar about him. That was how fame worked, Allan thought, someone's image is recycled through newspapers, magazines, and television until anonymity becomes awareness, then recognition, and finally fame. The familiar stranger - another product of the modern world.

Boarding began a few minutes later, and Allan found himself sitting next to a woman who offered a sweet smile as he sat down. Jessica Elston, slender with light-brown hair that just brushed her shoulders, had a calm, untroubled face. If Allan hadn't already heard about her, he might have guessed that she was an attractive grade-school teacher on vacation.

Thirty minutes later, after the plane reached its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, several passengers got up to walk around the cabin, including a pear-shaped man with white hair who stopped next to Row 22.

"Good luck tomorrow, Jessica."

She looked up. "Thanks, John."

"You'll be the best player at the audition - no one has a sound like yours. 'Jékely-and-Hyde' ought to be begging you to take over first chair."

"You don't have any incriminating photos I can use, do you?"

"I wish I did, but regardless of who he chooses, you deserve it."

"That's kind of you to say, John."

"It's the truth," he replied, and moved down the aisle.

Jessica glanced at Allan. "We're all part of an orchestra," she offered in explanation.
"The Philadelphia Symphony, I was told." He related some of what he'd learned at the check-in counter. "But there's something I don't understand: If you're already in the orchestra, why are you auditioning?"

"Our principal cellist is retiring, and the auditions are to decide who replaces him." She paused and, not receiving a nod of understanding from her seatmate, continued, "The principal cellist gets all the solos and is recognized as the best player in that section."

"Then I hope you get the job."

"I won't."

"But, from what your friend said, you must have a pretty good chance."

"No," she said simply, "in truth, I have no chance at all. Miklós doesn't pick women for the principal chairs."

"How can he do that?"

"The judging at auditions is totally subjective, and his opinion is the only one that's important." Her tone was matter-of-fact, but there was a trace of something else in her voice. "Miklós can claim that someone else's bow work is crisper, that their fingerwork is better, or that they have a richer vibrato."

"Isn't there someone you can complain to?"

"No. We're the serfs in Miklós' kingdom."

(End of Exerpt)