Mystery Short Story: The Audition

Aug 5, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Gerald Elias

This story isn’t a typical mystery, but it does have a surprise ending. In this week’s issue, we also have a review and giveaway of Gerald’s latest mystery novel, and an interview with him. This story was first published in Gerald’s anthology It’s a Crime!

Story intro: The idea for The Audition was inspired by the Nazi ghetto-labor camp of Theresienstadt, where Jewish artists and musicians were held up to the world as an example of how well they were being treated by their captors. In fact, it was all a fiction; in reality, they were being prepared for extermination by the thousands.

The small antechamber in which Max Kohl had been waiting for far too long was spare to the extreme and smelled of disinfectant. Whitewashed walls were barren of art or decoration of any kind. He sat at one end of a row of six rickety wooden chairs, the room’s only furniture, lined up against one wall. There wasn’t even a table for his violin case, which he had to place next to him on the stone floor. So high up as to make it unreachable, a single small window filtered in morning spring sun, which irradiated aimlessly meandering dust motes by its shaft of light. This made Max smile. It reminded him of the motion picture theater where Rosa had for the first time allowed him to put his hand on her thigh in the dark, thus providing the antechamber’s sole modicum of cheer.

The audition had come down to two of them, all the other candidates for the sole orchestra vacancy having fallen by the wayside. In an ironic twist of fate, the other finalist was his teacher, Professor Zeutwig Kishtok, sitting stone-faced at the other end of the row. Max had no hesitancy admitting that Kishtok had taught him much of what he knew about the mechanics of playing the violin. “Without technique, there would be no music.” Kishtok had proclaimed more times than Max could recount. However, Max had never actually liked his teacher. In his opinion, Kishtok’s personality was as starched as his collars, and was supremely academic—a pedant if the truth be told—who considered music more of a scientific discipline, like math or physics, than an art that moved the soul. In his heavy woolen suit, with his hair parted down the middle like the Red Sea and plastered to his oversized cranium, and with his pince nez eyeglasses, Kishtok was a dried up relic of a previous century. Kishtok had almost succeeded draining the joy of playing the violin out of Max, and he had only just turned nineteen. “Almost,” though, was the operative word. Max congratulated himself for having taken the best of what Kishtok had to offer and combined it with his personal joie de vivre, so that his own playing was full of spontaneity and imagination. When Max played the violin, the music lived. At least that was his intention.

And now, here they were, the two finalists in the most important audition of their lives. The younger generation against the older, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. While Max’s adrenaline flowed in torrents, his former teacher was no more animated than the wooden chair upon which he sat. Kishtok didn’t offer a word of encouragement or even look in Max’s direction. Though pupil and teacher, they were now adversaries. Nothing more.

The door to their little room opened. A man with no expression, a minor functionary, stiff and formal, entered.

“It has been determined Professor Kishtok will play first,” he said.

Kishtok, violin in hand, edgily followed the attendant into the audition chamber. The heavy door separating the rooms closed behind him with a soft click whose very softness made it seem that much more foreboding. From his chair, Max heard the committee chairman’s one-word instruction to Kishtok.


Kishtok tuned his violin, then began the “Adagio” from the G Minor Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin by Johann Sebastian Bach. To Max’s ear, it seemed stilted and funereal, as if Kishtok were already conceding defeat. That’s not the way Max would play it when it was his turn. He would play more flowingly, as if the music were being improvised. With passion. If Rosa were here, she would approve of his interpretation, he was sure.

Only a month before, they, Rosa and Max, had met at a spirited gathering of young people. He could hardly believe it had been but one week since she had invited him to share her bed. Rosa was his first, but she had confessed she’d had five or six lovers before him. Max claimed that her familiarity with men—and women, too, it turned out—didn’t bother him. Far from it. In fact, it was a relief that between the two of them, at least she knew what to do. They had made love four times that night, but their most intimate moments had been when they were entwined in each other’s arms, whispering about hopes and dreams. They made plans. Max told Rosa he learned more of what music was supposed to be about in that one night than he had from Kishtok in all his years of study.

Max must have been daydreaming much longer than he thought, because before he knew it, Kishtok emerged from the audition chamber. He appeared exhausted, and if eyes could tell a story, shaken as well. His shoulders slumped and his feet shuffled like a chained convict, as if he didn’t have the strength to lift them off the ground. Max looked directly at his old teacher, but Kishtok would not return his gaze. Max felt quite emboldened about his chances of winning the audition, and with it he saw a promising future. His heart raced. He and Rosa together. Why not?

clipboard“Max Kohl,” the attendant said, as if there had been a dozen other candidates sitting there and not just him. Max couldn’t help but smirk at the formality of it all. He had never felt so confident. He picked up his violin and followed the attendant into the audition room, which was only slightly less austere than the stark antechamber. The walls were hung with some stuffy framed photographs of the obligatory dignitaries. Sitting at a very official looking oak desk, trying to look intimidating, was the committee chairman, who would make the final decision. Behind him were four musical advisers in stiff suits, ramrod straight in upholstered chairs that looked far more comfortable than the one in which he had waited his turn. Each adviser held a clipboard, upon which his playing would no doubt be dissected in scribbling dissertations. They looked more like laboratory technicians than musicians.

Max smiled at the chairman, then at the group behind him.

“Bach,” said the chairman.

Max made a curt bow, tuned his violin, and then began the same “Adagio” that his teacher had performed a half hour earlier. As he had envisioned, he played it rhapsodically and with great abandon. It was sensual. It was, he dared to think, erotic. When he finished, he looked at the five men judging him. Yes, they were obliged to remain impassive as was appropriate for an audition, but it appeared to Max—though he couldn’t be sure—their expressions had softened, as if the ice in their facial muscles and bones had thawed to the warmth of his playing.


Ah, yes. The D Major Concerto. Mozart had composed it when he was exactly the same age as Max. When he had studied it with Kishtok, Kishtok demanded he play it not like a rambunctious, impetuous youth, but like a brittle old man, exactly the same tempo the whole time, with no real fortes or pianos, but always moderate, moderate, moderate. Yes, there was the old axiom: Be moderate in all things. Maybe that was good for some things, like smoking and drinking and politics—yes, politics for sure—but not for Mozart! Maybe Kishtok could play it more pristinely than Max could, with a little more “perfection” (whatever that meant). But with character? Where was the character? Max thought to himself.

So Max played the D Major with uninhibited flair, with the unrestrained abandon the rebellious teenage Mozart would have. (At least, the way Max thought Mozart would have.) And he was very satisfied with the result. Whether the judges were or not was impossible to tell, but Max was not at all alarmed by their lack of response, as they were not permitted to display any favoritism.


The final test. Supremely challenging in an artistic sense, the Brahms concerto was also physically exhausting, even for a young buck like himself. Especially after the Bach and Mozart. Max had to acknowledge that Kishtok had studied the concerto with his own teacher, Joseph Joachim, who in turn had been a friend and confidante of the great Brahms himself, and had actually assisted Brahms in tackling some of the thornier technical demands of the concerto. So Kishtok had learned this concerto from the horse’s mouth. This fact Max could not deny. Yet for an older musician like Kishtok, the stamina the piece demanded from the monumental first movement alone was as daunting as an aging climber attempting to scale the Matterhorn. So whereas Max might have had a disadvantage in experience, he had the power and energy of youth. He bit into the concerto with unbridled vigor and did not let go until the final, triumphant chords. Yes, at the finish he was panting, but while he had been playing his strength hadn’t waned for a moment.

“You are excused. Wait in the anteroom.”

Max bowed again, and followed the attendant out. He found Professor Kishtok sitting in his chair, somewhat slouched and disheveled, his eyes downcast. As Max returned to his own seat, Kishtok raised his rheumy eyes, only enough to meet Max’s, and gave him a slight nod. That was all. For the rest of the time, which seemed endless, they waited in silence. At one point, Kishtok removed his pince nez eyeglasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. Max could vaguely hear discussion going on in the other room, but the sound was so faint he could not tell what was being said.

As the minutes passed, their waiting room became hot and stuffy. The window was closed, and even if they could reach it neither Max nor Kishtok would dare try to open it for fear of the consequences on the judges’ deliberations of doing anything without their permission. A bead of perspiration liberated itself from Max’s tight collar and trickled down his back. The longer they waited, the more doubt crept into his mind about his performance. Had he gone too far with his freedom of expression? Had he been too bold by many degrees? Had he misjudged the judges? Might they have preferred the safe and secure to the creative and imaginative? Could Rosa’s influence have steered him in the wrong direction? Had he been trying to impress her rather than the judges who were the ones determining his future?

All of these doubts were swirling around in his head when the door opened.

“Enter. Both of you.”

The two men stood up. By tradition and out of courtesy, Max gestured for Kishtok to go first. Kishtok again looked at him for only a moment, but with such a complexity of expression that Max could not truly conjure the meaning.

They entered the audition chamber and the attendant closed the door behind them. The advisory committee stared at both of them, giving away nothing. The chairman cleared his throat.

“We have made a decision. You are to be congratulated, Professor Zeutwig Kishtok, on your pedagogical excellence. You should be proud this day.”

Kishtok, who had been slump-shouldered, straightened, and appeared determined not to allow his lips to form a smile in his moment of triumph. Max was stunned. Though he had begun to doubt himself, still he couldn’t believe the judges’ verdict. How could they have not embraced his virtuosity with open arms, as Rosa had?

“Yes,” the chairman continued. “You have done your job well. So well, in fact, that the student has surpassed the teacher. The winner of the audition is Max Kohl.”

Kishtok’s smile that had not been a smile disappeared.

“This cannot be,” Kishtok said. “There must be some mistake.”

“There is no mistake.”

“Perhaps we can have another round. I can play anything you want. My repertoire is extensive, as anyone will tell you. Anything you ask for.”

Kishtok’s voice shook with desperation. Max wanted to shout out in joy. He had survived.

“The decision is final, Professor Kishtok.”

Kishtok began to tremble.

“But…But commandant,” he pleaded. “Certainly you can make more room in the orchestra for one more violin.”

“I am sorry, but we have our regulations. And we have our expenses. You knew this.”

“Yes, yes. But. My family. I have a wife, sir. I have three children.”

Kishtok, broken, began to cry. Max sympathized, but the audition had been fair. Kishtok had had his chance. He had played the only way he knew how, from his brain, whereas Max had played the way the life had taught him, from his heart. The judges had made their choice and Max had won.

“Please! Please!” Kishtok begged.

It was clear that the judges, averting their eyes, were becoming uncomfortable. Kishtok was only making things worse for himself, if that were possible.

Yet, Kishtok had a point. He did have a family. Max didn’t. But he had Rosa. For one night, anyway. But then, who knew what might happen? They could end up hating each other. Couldn’t they? More likely, she’d find another lover at some point. And then another, perhaps.

glassesA second attendant appeared to join the first. Together, they took Kishtok by his arms and began to lead him, drag him, really, out of the room. Kishtok’s precariously perched eyeglasses fell off his face onto the floor. Max bent down, picked them up and began to hand them to his old professor. Kishtok opened his mouth as if he were going to say something. Though no sound came out, his trembling lips seemed mouth the words, “Thank you.”

Max knew Kishtok’s children. During his lessons, they had cavorted around the house like banshees. The youngest, Berta, only four years old, had been born late in Kishtok’s life and was his true joy. Kishtok would sing Yiddish folk songs to her and bounce the little girl upon his knee, and she would squeal in delight.

Max took a breath. He opened his hand, allowing the eyeglasses to drop on the cement floor, breaking them. The gratitude that had been in Kishtok’s eyes only a moment before was replaced by a frown of anger and insult.

“All of a sudden,” Max said, a look of bewilderment on his face, “it seems I can’t move my arm.” His right arm indeed appeared to dangle helplessly from his shoulder.

“Is this the truth?” the chairman asked.

“Yes,” Max said. “I don’t know what happened. When I went to pick up the eyeglasses. Something seemed to snap.”

He swung his arm and slammed it violently against the front of the chairman’s heavy desk. The pain from the impact was excruciating.

“See?” he said. “I can’t feel a thing. I think it’s paralyzed.”

“Do you realize what you’re saying?” the chairman said.

“I’m afraid so.”

“In that case, I have no choice but to declare Professor Kishtok the winner. Max Kohl, you will be removed and executed without further delay.”

On his way out, Max whispered in his teacher’s ear, “Give my violin to little Berta, won’t you?”

Kishtok was too stunned to respond. Rosa would have other lovers, Max was certain. He didn’t mind.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode goes up next month.

Gerald Elias leads a double life as an internationally recognized violinist and author of the critically acclaimed Daniel Jacobus mystery series; Roundtree Days, a 2023 Silver Falchion Award finalist; and other books. In addition to his self-published collection, It’s a Crime!, his short fiction has been widely published, including in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Coolest American Stories 2023.


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