"I carry a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out in sound.”
-- Franz Liszt
Judith loved teaching piano. Her favorite sort of day was having a large block of students, one after another. A few of them came to her with difficulty reading notes. That frustrated her. She wasn’t always sensitive to their perceived limitations. These students often had great memorization skill but an excellent memory and ear could only take them so far. She wanted them to succeed so that they could make beautiful sound and express the composer’s vision.
Stevie pushed back her irritation. This was the first suspicious death on an island she had investigated. The ferry system felt like a hindrance. Reggie Watts, her partner, told her to come quickly as the medical examiner wanted a homicide team to investigate. The examiner told Reggie that he found indications of foul play but did not want to make a definitive statement until the autopsy. She glanced at her phone and noted the time was almost 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe it was early enough to avoid the worst ferry traffic. She had priority boarding which meant she was the first to drive off the ferry. The highway climbed up a steep hill from the water. She noticed a few people on bicycles alongside the road, laboring in what seemed slow motion. Bicycling had once interested her and she tried bicycling from West Seattle to the police precinct. It was an activity that quickly lost it’s novelty.
After driving through the small town she checked to see how far she had to go. It looked like the residence was almost at the other end of the island.
Her GPS announced that her destination was coming up on the left. Several cars were parking on a non-existent shoulder. A deputy stopped her from driving down the steep driveway to the crime scene.
“Sorry, ma’am. We can’t let you come this way.”
Stevie flashed her badge at him and muttered that she was going forward.
“I apologize, ma’am, but the road is very narrow below and there are already too many cars. Please park along the side and I’ll accompany you down to the house.”
As she walked toward the house she caught a glimpse through a window of Reggie. His burnished brown hair caught the light and shown red even from a distance. He wore his black blazer over dark gray jeans. With a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other he was turned intently to listen to the man beside him. Reggie liked details and he gathered them up like a farmer gleaning in his field. How did he get here from Seattle before she did?
Stepping through the entrance her eyes took in the view from the waterfront home. The sea shimmered silver with the afternoon sun. Sections of the water looked like panes of glass, smooth and transparent. A single dark line of crayon scrawled a lazy trail across the expanse. She sat down in a cozy semi-circle of chairs facing the window and allowed the vision to settle her mind. After some minutes she turned to see that on the other side of the chairs, facing the entryway, a long couch divided the living room in half. Art on the walls blended in with the colors of the decor. Spring green brush strokes blended into red, orange, and yellow impressions of a fall scene. A reflection of the autumn foliage, on the canvas, shimmered in a pond below. The dark green leather couch seemed to blend with the floor to ceiling painting.
“The deceased is upstairs.” A deputy approached her showing her the way.
She heard Reggie talking to the medical examiner about time of death.
“I’ll just walk around the residence first.” Stevie said. “Who found the body?”
“Her name was Judith Whitesides and she was a piano teacher, ma’am. Her student and his mother found her dead when they arrived for lessons.”
“Are they still here?”
“Yes, they are waiting in the kitchen wondering when they can go home.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to them.”
She peeked into the open, light filled kitchen but decided to continue walking through the house first. A grand piano was visible beyond in what she guessed was the music studio. A flash of memory caught her off guard. How many times had she come to a piano lesson as a student when she was younger? And how many teachers had pushed her towards a career as a pianist?
The Steinway Grand beckoned to her as she walked in. Reaching into her pocket, she slipped sterile gloves onto her hands and then gently touched the keys. The sound was warm and deep. If she could sit and play for a few minutes it would calm her nerves. By the side of the piano, a fancy cupboard with many thin drawers caught her eye. She pulled on one of the middle drawers to see sheet music neatly stacked into place. Behind the cupboard, on shelves, rows of piano scores stood at attention. Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Scarlatti, and other composers’ work were in a row. She recognized them all. A black lacquered metronome stood on the edge of the piano, next to the music stand. The lid was off. Next to it a red and white stripped candy dish with black licorice pieces, piled like lego pieces, teetered too close to the edge. She moved the dish further in. She liked black licorice. Before she got too immersed in the details of the studio she decided to go visit with the piano student in the kitchen.
She slipped into a chair at the table and introduced herself. The mother and teenage son looked nervous and out of their element.
“So which one of you is the student?”
“I am.” said Jon. His eyes made contact with Stevie but then dropped down sadly.
“Is Mrs. Whitesides dead?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. This must be very difficult for both of you. How are you doing?”
They just looked at her.
“Do you think you could answer a few more questions? I know you have been here a long time.”
Jon and his mother nodded their heads in unison.
“Do you have piano lessons every Wednesday?”
“Yes, I come at 11 o’clock.” Jon spoke out clearly.
“And I come with him every week.” said Jon’s mother. She clutched at Stevie’s arm. “What has happened to Judith?”
“We are not sure what happened, yet. Did you notice anything strange when you came to lessons today?”
“Her car was here. The door was open but the house was quiet. We waited twenty minutes before we got alarmed.” Jon’s mother said.
“Do you always come right in unannounced?”
Mrs. Taylor looked as if she might take offense but decided otherwise.“That is what Judith tells us to do. Sometimes she is with a student but mostly she is in the house somewhere and she comes to greet us in the music room.”
“She likes me to warm up on the piano without her.” Jon said.
“How long have you been taking lessons, Jon?”
“Six years. But only one year from Mrs. Whitesides.”
Stevie turned back to Mrs. Taylor. “Is Mr. Whitesides ever here when you come to lessons?”
“No, we haven’t seen him, ever, but his name is Dominik Horak. She says that he travels a lot. He is from Prague. Judith often shows us old music scores she brought from there while she was teaching at the conservatory.”
“Is there anyone else around when you come to lessons?”
“Just the student before us, a Mr. Chavez. He is a middle aged man. His playing is really excellent. I think he lives somewhere on the island.” Jon’s mother added.
“Was he here when you came today?”
“No, no one was here.” Jon chimed in.
“Did she try to contact you in the last few days?”
“Ah….no,” Mrs. Taylor dropped her eyes. “I mean she didn’t call me recently.”
“So, your lesson today was confirmed?”
“Yes, she knew we were coming.”
“Okay, you both look tired.” Stevie patted Mrs. Taylor’s hand. “My partner Reggie Watts will likely have a few more questions for you. But, you should be able to go home soon.”
“Are we in any danger, Detective?” Jon’s voice trembled just the tiniest bit.
“I shouldn’t think so. You have been very brave. Thank you for waiting and being so forthcoming.”
Stevie left the kitchen and walked up the thick carpeted stairs. The bedroom was to the right. Judith Whitesides’ body was still on the bed. The medical examiner was putting away his bag. Reggie stood off to the side writing in his notebook with a puzzled look on his face.
“Time of death estimate?”
“Between midnight and 6 o’clock this morning.”
Judith’s eyes were closed. Curly hair, the color of chestnuts, wrapped itself around her ears and neck. She had a delicate, long nose and thin lips which had a blueish tinge. Stevie gently picked up one of Judith’s hands and admired her long fingers. They were pianist’s hands. There was no visible sign of trauma. No blood on the sheets. Whatever killed her was not noticeable on the outside.
She looked at the medical examiner. “Why did you feel the need to call in a homicide team?”
“I’d prefer doing the autopsy before answering that question. Just be very thorough, please.” The medical examiner picked up his bag and left the room.
Reggie rubbed his forehead. He turned to Stevie. “He’ll get us a tox screen soon. We are taking fingerprints and looking around for drugs in her bathroom. We haven’t found anything, yet.”
“Any info on the whereabouts of her husband?”
“What husband?” Reggie asked. “How did you hear about a husband?”
“The student downstairs said she talked about a Czech husband named Dominik Horak. They never actually met him.”
“Okay, Stevie, I’ll call in to the station and have them run his name through our data base. Can you look around for a list of other piano students? She is sure to have a calendar laying around downstairs in her office. Anyone find a computer?” Reggie called out to the crime team officers who were preparing to remove the body.
“I’ll check. We should also go talk to some neighbors.”
Stevie walked back down the stairs and into the music room. She opened the desk drawers to check for a teaching calendar. Bills were neatly stacked inside the drawers. Stevie picked up bundle of bank statements and opened them one by one, organizing them by date. Judith’s name was the only name on the account. The total amount deposited for August was ten thousand nine hundred dollars. That seemed a large monthly income for a piano teacher. Placing the bank statements aside she continued opening the drawers. There was nothing like an address book or weekly planner. She noticed a cell phone lying under the piano. There could be information on her phone. She picked it up to open it. Of course it was password protected. What would a pianist use for a password? Hmm…..36783 spelled out forte. Legato? Rubato? The phone came to life as she pressed 782286.