A riveting murder mystery about a morally compromised woman’s resolve to protect her musical discovery.
By Gabriele Burgess
“Music embodies feeling without forcing it to contend and combine with thought, as it is forced in most arts and especially in the art of words.”
Judith sat at the piano in her music room, her curly hair ruffling around her face. The sun streaming in the window scattered dapples of light over the hardwood floor, bleeding on the thick rug under the piano. Scattered around her on the floor were sheets of typewritten pages, music scores, and in an archival see-through plastic sleeve the worn and carefully guarded fragment of the first 34 measures of The Rhapsody No.8 by Franz Liszt, the great Hungarian composer. It was her secret treasure, brought from Europe, hidden among her music. She picked up the manuscript, looking at the handwritten music from so long ago. The first strong notes cascaded up the octaves and culminated with ten repeated C sharps, all in a row. The sound of the music in her head was rich with color and texture. It gave her the greatest of joy to play the F Sharp minor section with it’s melancholy announcement before the beauty of the change of key. The change from minor to major left her soul lifted and energized. Judith knew there were fragments of the rest of the piece in the Library Of Congress, Franz Liszt Collection in Washington D.C. but no one knew she possessed the first page. And, no one must know until she could verify her find. It must never again, come into his hands.
Today was a test. Jon walked down the cobblestone pathway towards his teacher’s house on the edge of the island. He was nervous, like butterflies playing volleyball in his belly. Lances of light blinded him as he tried to hop from stone to stone. He stopped to look at the saffron-yellow sunlight dancing on the water. Beautiful things always captured his attention. What would it be like to see the water all the time? His home was inland so he often forgot he lived on an island. He longed for a day of adventure but instead he was going to his weekly piano lesson with his mother. He liked his teacher, but she was moody. Last week she attacked his note reading skills. It was true that he memorized his music easily. It was just faster using his ear than trying to figure out all the notes. The test today was whether she could tell if he had been practicing sight reading.
“Don’t bother coming back if you don’t seriously buckle down and learn to read music!” The sting of her words still made him uncomfortable. After the last lesson he told his mother he wanted to quit. She raised her eyebrows at him. He loved playing too much to quit. So, Jon practiced all week, endlessly drilling with computer flash cards. It was working. Relationships between the lines and spaces started looking like patterns. He went from sight reading short lines to picking up the Waltz in A Minor. Judith would be amazed that he was playing Chopin.
Jon reached the front door and turned the knob. It was sticky and didn’t open right away. Every week he felt weird just walking in without knocking but that is how Judith liked it. His mother was right behind him.
“I don’t hear anyone playing. Let’s go through.” Then his mother stopped. “It sounds really quiet in here. I wonder where Judith is?”
Jon walked through to the music room and on the way touched the statue of Liszt on the table. The marble felt cold. His mother settled onto the couch. “Go ahead and warm up with your scales. She’ll be down in a few minutes.”
He approached the piano, fingering the Steinway ivory keys. This was the only piano he had ever played with real ivory. He wondered how many elephant tusks it took to make ivory key tops. Above the keyboard the ever present plate of black licorice next to the music stand tempted him. He tried a piece once when she wasn’t looking and hated the taste. She never really offered it to him; he just assumed it was for her students. His eyes scanned the water off the bluff through the picture window beyond the piano. He wished suddenly that he could just go to the beach.
“You’ve worked really hard this week. Judith will be impressed.”
“I know. I just want it over with.”
“But you are doing so well and I’m proud of you, no matter what she says.”
Jon opened his music and started playing. Judith’s Steinway had a “mellow tone”, or so his mother said. It made the minor chords softer, adding a dark color to the sound. Today Chopin’s notes seemed to reach the ceiling mysteriously and then float down mixing with the beams of light from the window. Jon lost his awareness of time. He played the waltz through again, letting his body sway to the motion of the music.
“Where can she be?” His mother interrupted his reverie. She began pacing around the room looking out the windows. The garage door was open and an older, gold Mercedes was visible inside. It was unusual for Judith to keep them waiting this long. She was a bit eccentric but not unreliable.
“Maybe she’s outside,” his mother said. Jon heard the door off the deck open and her loud footsteps matched the rhythm of his bass line. She was calling Judith’s name outloud.
Jon played the next piece faster, stumbling over the scales going up and then down.
His mother reappeared in the music room. “There is no sign of her in the yard. This is kind of bizarre. I’m going to look in the kitchen.”
“I don’t think…I don’t think she would want us looking around her house, Mom.” He called after her.
“Play that harmonic minor scale one more time and go up two octaves this time.”
Jon heard a door creak open and then shut with a loud bang.
“Mom? Are you snooping?”
His mother came back, this time with her cell phone in hand.
“I’m calling her number to see if it rings somewhere in the house.” Jon closed the lid of the piano. He felt like going home. Then they both heard the ringing of classical music very close by.
“It’s her phone under the piano.” Jon got on his knees and crawled towards the phone.
“Don’t touch it Jon! I have a funny feeling about this.”
“What…, what do you mean, Mom?” His head came up too soon and it hit the frame of the piano. “Ouch!” He crawled out, rubbing his head.
“She must be here somewhere. I’m going upstairs to the bedrooms.” His mother moved towards the staircase.
“No! Mom, let’s just go home.” Jon followed his mother.
She mounted the stairs tentatively but determined to solve the mystery. Jon waited at the bottom. When his mother disappeared down the hall, the strange feeling he felt earlier started a slow boil in the pit of his stomach making him feel sick.
“Judith?” His mother’s voice faltered. “Jon, something is wrong. Stay downstairs. I’m calling the police.”