Musical people are so very unreasonable. They always want one to bw
perfectly dumb at the very moment when one is longing to be perfectly deaf.
--Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband.
Tom and Beatrice were barreling down Uncommonwealth Avenue in one of those large ancient taxis that bob up and down the road, bouncing unevenly on bad shocks, like old tugboats fighting the waves. The sky was still clear, but the weather was changing, and there was a lowering gray in the distance.
"Do I have to see him?" asked Bea, looking moodily out the window as ridiculously expensive apartments glided past her view.
"Of course you do," Tom shot back. "You know him, I don't."
"Count yourself lucky."
"Look. Public people uncoil better if there's an old acquaintance in the room --even if it's an old enemy," he explained. "And I have questions to ask. Trust me, girlfriend, I'm an old hand at this."
"You do know that there's no love lost between us, me and Willard."
"I realize that, darling." He patted her on the hand. "Don't worry, Auntie Tom will be here to break it up if you two start hissing like cats at each other." Bea made a face at him as the taxi made an unexpected turn.
They found themselves surrounded by high, anonymous buildings that looked down imperiously, as if to say, "Careful. We're cooler and smarter than you are."
The taxi stopped at a particularly dark and unpleasant-looking skyscraper, encased in dark, mirrored glass. The sun-drenched clouds above looked murky in the building's brackish reflection.
The two of them went through the revolving doors, and entered a dark-green marble hallway with high-domed ceilings. The walls were echoing the noise from a subterranean air-conditioning system, mumbling in an indistinct bass voice, like a lawyer explaining why he lost your case.
They approached a middle-aged black woman seated behind a forbidding, elevated desk. She was going through some kind of paperwork in an irritated and preoccupied manner. Her mirrored sunglasses seemed to forbid any attempt at familiarity, her hair tied in a bun so tight it gave off the fluorescent lights' reflection like a piece of dark chrome.
Aside from this august personage, Bea and Tom were the only two in the cavernous space. They waited patiently.
Having finished whatever paper-shuffling she felt had to be done, the guard looked down unto them in a noncommittal way, and crossed her hands before her. She even contributed a syllable to the proceedings.
"Yes?" she asked, making it sound like a rhetorical question.
Tom whipped out the badge from his coat-pocket, and presented it professionally, setting it onto the desk with a tac sound.
"Tom Charleston Griffes, Police Investigator," he said, trying to get his voice as low and masculine as possible. "And this is --"
"I know who it is," the guard said, imperiously brushing him away with her hand. She took off her mirrored sunglasses and raised, very slightly, one eyebrow, smiling, "How are yuh, Bea honey?"
Bea's jaw dropped. She stared for a second, and took a step forward, and then she whispered …"Cleo? CLEO?"
And, suddenly, both of these icy, forbidding, professional women were jumping up and down, and screaming.
This was disconcerting to Tom, who still had his badge out on the desk, and now felt like A Complete Idiot. Surrounded by lunatics. He busied himself with putting his card back in his wallet, pretending he didn't know either of them.
Instead of going around the elevated desk as any sensible person would have done, both women were now trying to jump over it and hug each other. Of course, they both looked as foolish as Tom felt. Then the two ran around the pretentious woodwork and embraced.
After a rib-crushing hug, Cleo drew back and said, "Honey, you're still lookin' mighty regal." She whistled and added, "And my, look at them long legs. What are you eating these days? Girl, you gotta get me the recipe."
"Did you really recognize me? I'm so happy, Cleo, oh, it's been years -" Bea was still yelping and scaring Tom.
In all the years he had known her, the last word he would ever have used to describe Beatrice was "girlish." And now, she was jumping around and squealing as if school had just been let out. No. Kindergarten.
"Oh, child, I saw you on the guest list they send down from upstairs this morning," Cleo answered. "I'm supposed to be at lunch right now. But I had to stay and see ya. You know that." She went back up to her desk.
"And are you still practici --" Bea started to ask, but Cleo held up a finger and went back up the desk's steps and turned to Tom. "Mr. Griffes, will you listen to that, now. She was always lecturing me about studying. She sees me, first time in twenty years, girl's still at it. Telling me off." She was leaning over them like a benevolent judge. Then, she shuffled through the pages and held aloft a page of music. "I can't have it out," she looked around and whispered. "I got to keep it hidden under the daily list."
"You've kept up the music, then," Bea asked.
"Oh, Honey, no. I had me a family to raise. But the two kids are off my hands --most of the time, anyway, one's in college now, can you imagine? -- and so I started studying again last year. I landed a gig last month in one of the jazz bars."
"Classical, Cleo. What about classical?" Bea had already crossed her arms, and gone back into her elder teacher mode.
Cleo was not cowed. She shook her head at Tom. "My, my. Listen to that. Isn't she awful?"
Tom, glad to be let into the conversation at last, conceded that she was.
Cleo swung a thumb down in Bea's direction. "I been ridin' Beatrice that she's got a natural swing for jazz, all the time we was at school. Damn, she couldn't get enough of it, played jazz all the time."
Now it was Tom's turn to arch an eyebrow, and for Beatrice to look embarrassed. "Is that a fact?" he asked. Her years away at music school she always kept mysterious. Now he knew why.
"Oh, sure. Man, she could sizzle, she could swing it up like nobody's business. And all the time she's giving me this heartbreak about not having been the first black woman percussionist in a classical orchestra." Cleo pointed at her accusingly. "Now, you do me a favor, Tom. Now that she knows where I am, tell her to lay off me. You will see what you can do with her, won't you?"
"I'll try," he said quietly, and looked at Bea evenly. "I think we've all tried."
While waiting for the elevator, Bea was still on a high from seeing her old friend, but not so much that she missed Tom’s trying, and failing, to keep a straight face. Finally she had enough and slapped him over the head with her purse.
"But why did you keep insisting about classical, if she's so good at jazz?" Tom asked, rubbing the back of his head gingerly. "I play a bit of jazz myself, and you don't ride me."
The elevator door opened, and they went in and pressed the button for the twentieth floor. Bea shook her head and said, "Look, I have nothing against jazz…"
"So I've heard. To my considerable surprise."
"But Tom, Cleo was different; she was amazing. Like no one I've ever heard. Before, and especially since. She wasn't just one of those cymbal-and-crash types. She could play vibes, marimba, and xylophone like a pianist plays Chopin."
"I still don't see --"
Bea turned to him. "Of course you don't. Back then, we didn't see, either. None of us, including Cleo's teachers, saw it coming."
"Saw what coming?"
"Thirty years ago there wasn't the type of classical music written for chamber groups with big parts for percussion that there is now," she explained. "Most of that stuff's been written just in the last thirty years. Cleo could play a marimba passage without making either the notes or the overtones bleed into each other. Do you know how difficult that is to do? It's practically impossible. She could tame a xylophone so that it sounded like a string instrument. She was a true genius." Her voice trailed off, and she fell silent.
Tom regarded her for a moment, and then asked. "You're thinking about it, aren't you?"
"What?" she asked defensively.
"Having her audition for the orchestra?"
"Why not, for heaven's sake? We have a percussionist who's dividing his time between a jazz combo, his rock band, and us. If Cleo lives on the Videntia side of Boston, I think we can lure her over. Maybe we can even get Paul to write something for us -- I mean, her --"
The elevator doors swung open, revealing a large set of letters that made them gape.
The letters of the business used to spell FAM, but lately it had been changed to accommodate the buying of a hugely profitable children's music press. As Fidelita Artists' Management & Literature International, it was now FAMLI, and had underneath its usual gold-embossed insignia a cute additional quartet: man, woman, two small kids (both sexes, of course), and all of them with big smiles, and all of them blowing toy trumpets.
"I may puke," was all Bea could say.
"Wait until you get into Ronchev's office," Tom whispered back.
They opened a pair of glass doors so spotless they nearly went through them first.
In the waiting room they heard the air-conditioner's low growl again, this time caged behind a large ventilator grill. In front of it was a young secretary in gray, sitting behind a gray desk on a gray carpet. On either side sat a mute audience of gray felt chairs. This secretary was more bent on ignoring them than Cleo was. After a moment, Bea, still in a capricious mood, cleared her throat and hummed a middle C. She then started to hum the melody to Pachabel's Canon. Tom quickly picked up the second voice. The secretary finally looked up at them.
It was not a friendly gaze. Before she could say anything, Tom interrupted her. "I'll say you can help us," he railroaded, laying on his thickest western accent. "We have a 2 p.m. appointment with Willard Ronchev, ma’am. We're obviously from the hicktown of Videntia."
Her Grayness did suppress a slight smile, and unfroze to about, say, 40 degrees. "He's expecting you."
Bea was still feeling frisky. She leaned forward and patted the young woman's hand. "Thanks, love; goodness, you're such a dear. Come on, Lovebuns," she said, and grabbing his hand, led a shocked Tom around the secretary's desk and through the President's ornate office door.
Willard Ronchev was sitting behind a large desk, which was placed at a distance from the large glass window overlooking Boston. It appeared as if some temperamental artist had once tried to eject both the desk and its occupant from the office, without bothering to use the door. The desk seemed to be inching away from the window.
As they entered, Ronchev rose with a beaming smile and waved, like an ambassador descending a plane for the benefit of photographers. Now in his late fifties, he seemed more physically fit than Beatrice remembered him. Framed golden records, lit up and darkened with the occasional glints of sun, surrounded the desk.
"Bea, what an honor! You're looking lovely," he said, his voice imbued with a smooth legato.
"Thanks," she replied coldly. "You're looking lovely, too." She looked around the room. "This is smaller than your old office, Willard. Even your desk is a bit smaller, I think."
Ronchev sat and put his hands behind his head as he leaned back. "I used to have to have large offices to impress customers," he said. "Now that I just see people we've already signed up it's very different. I don't have to prove anything anymore," he turned to Tom and added, "to anybody."
Tom cleared his throat as he sat down, and took out a four-by-six pad and a pencil. "That pleases me to hear," he said in a convivial tone, "Then this won't take long.
"Mr. Ronchev," Tom got down to business, "is there anything you can tell me about Klipop? Anything recent, I mean. Physically, mentally, emotionally. Anything that would have occasioned a heart attack?"
Ronchev shrugged. "I have been on vacation the past two months, you see --looking for talent in Europe. Our Vice-President filled in for me."
"Your Vice-President. Okay. Can I speak to him?"
"Not at the moment," Ronchev said. "The man is on a lone mountain-climbing holiday in New Hampshire. I think he's a fool; he worries me when he does that. We've known each other for many years. Like a family. And Klipop --oh, he was the spiritual head of our wonderful family. Such a close friend, such a cultured, continental person…." Before Tom could ask if the Vice-President had a cell-phone he could be reached at, Ronchev turned his attention to Bea. "Europe is so beautiful, Bea, darling. Do you remember touring for us in Europe?"
"I remember being too busy catching flights and getting to performance halls on time to enjoy Europe," Bea replied frostily. "Someday I'd like to go back and see all the places I went to but couldn't see." Tom was pleased to note that in the atmosphere of Ronchev's smooth, oily personality, her natural, brittle self had resurfaced.
Tom started asking questions of a civil nature, trying to make Ronchev feel at ease. Beatrice was watching Ronchev with suspicion. The proffered story about his Vice-President sounded in some way odd to her.
She'd try a ruse. She searched in her side pocket, and pulled out something tiny in her fingers. "Do you have some water here, Willard? I suddenly remembered some medicine I have to take…" She looked about the room. Tom was looking at her suspiciously.
"Still with the medication, darling? I have some soda in there," Ronchev motioned to a portable fridge humming to itself against the wall.
"No. My doctor says I have to swear off soda. I saw a water fountain outside in the reception room," Beatrice said, getting up. "Excuse me, I'll be back in a moment."
Outside the office, she flicked away the piece of lint in her hand, which she'd been pretending was a pill. She approached Ronchev's secretary from behind.
She noticed the young woman secretly studying music underneath a pile of office papers --much as Cleo downstairs had been doing. Obviously there was some kind of rule in this company against reading anything that didn't have to do with your administrative work. Getting into the music business this way meant you were prevented from reading music. Typical.
She recognized the piece –Paganini –and loudly cleared her throat. The secretary slammed the office papers on top of the music and tried to look blasé.
"Why just the Caprices?" Beatrice asked the secretary. "There's so many other things now for solo violin…" she said pleasantly. The younger woman realized that Beatrice was trying to be friendly, and wasn't a potential enemy.
"Oh, Ms. Klarke, I'm sorry… I'm just …you know, fantasizing …"
"I did too, once. It's okay to dream. Eventually I could play the Caprices, but I started on Viotti myself. You have to be patient. It takes time."
"And lots of practice."
"Yes, But you don't have to worry about your other problems when you're practicing; not when you're totally involved in playing better."
"Maybe," the secretary said. "My ex-boyfriend had a quote, that nothing's more ridiculous than trying to be something you obviously aren't."
"Yes, it's one of Samuel Johnson's many boners. He was wrong: every great pianist starts out as the world's worst pianist. What's your name?"
"Alice." The two shook hands. "The Paganini was all my local library had," she continued. "There's other stuff I can order, but it's way expensive. Can't buy it on my present salary." The girl was obviously a college student making herself up to look like a professional office worker.
"Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?" Beatrice asked.
"I don't mind," she said, taking off her glasses, "I finished the paperwork an hour ago, but I have to spend afternoons pretending I'm still doing it."
"When did your boss get back from vacation?" she asked.
"He didn't," Alice said, then added pointedly, "Ronchev never goes on vacation."
"He told me he did."
She thought. "He took two three-day vacations recently --one of them was the Fourth-of-July weekend. That's all."
"Three days isn't much time to do a round trip to Europe," Beatrice muttered. "Even with the rocket-schedules he used to have me on."
"He hasn't been to Europe. He's been chasing a few soloists over there to add to his collection, true; but he's just been after them with e-mails and phone calls." She shot a quick glance at the closed door behind them, and added, "He's lying if he told you otherwise."
Beatrice raised a quizzical eyebrow at her apparent disinterest in keeping her boss's counsel. Alice set this right. "I'm only a temp for the summer, Ms. Klarke. I go back to college in the fall. The FAMLI company thinks it's easier hiring temps to work for Ronchev anyway. He goes through secretaries as if they were blank sheets of paper."
"He's still a hard taskmaster, I'm guessing."
"On the regulars, yeah," she answered. "Mind you, he's been kind of easy on me; but I'm a pretty quick study."
"What about his Vice-President? When does he come back from his mountain-climbing vacation in New Hampshire?"
Alice looked at Beatrice in disbelief, and then bent over the desk in uncontrolled laughter. "Is that what he told you? Oh, my goodness."
"What's so funny?"
"Oh, my. Excuse me," she composed herself. "His Vice-President’s up in New Hampshire, all right, but where they stuck him I don't think he’s allowed to climb mountains."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean they found him climbing the walls of his office when they strapped him down and took him away."
Exactly, Beatrice thought. She thanked the young woman and sneaked back into the office.
Ronchev was still talking a blue streak, holding forth on Klipop's record sales. He obviously was intent on smothering Tom with irrelevant detail, and Tom waved her back in. He desperately needed help dealing with this smooth customer. The clouds outside the building were beginning to darken.
"I'm guessing," she said, coming up to Tom as if her former boss wasn't even there, "that Ronchev's avoided most of your questions. I'm not at all surprised. He used to do that to me, too."
Ronchev was standing behind his desk chair. He looked at her and shook his head sadly. "You're still difficult, my dear. That's painful to see at your age." Okay, the gloves were off now. Beatrice snapped back, "I've always been 'inconvenient' for you, Willard. Too bad. A heart attack's a lot more convenient than a drug problem, isn't it?"
For one half-second, Ronchev's face lost control. His hands gripped the back of his chair, its leather bearing the weight of fingernails digging into it. After an absent moment, he tried to resume his easygoing manner. To some extent he succeeded, and he gave the two of them the trace of a smile.
"Well. You found the water fountain all right?" he asked her genially.
She gave a short nod; Tom still had his notepad in hand and flipped over to a new page. He took a header into the storm.
"Let me save you some time, sir," Tom said shortly. "You knew about Klipop's heart condition and kept quiet about it." He had his eyes on the notepad so he didn't have to note the reactions of the two others. He knew what they would be, anyway. "I know," he said, as Ronchev was about to respond, "all about your agency scotching the stories of Beatrice's involvement with drugs so she could keep to the untenable concert schedule you'd arranged for her."
"That's an unfounded rumor that Beatrice was stupid enough to let --"
"SIR. Excuse me," Tom interrupted, with a fierce edge in his voice. "I've known Bea for years. She had a physical relapse --a sort of conniption fit-- a couple of years ago. Two doctors traced it to after-effects from the drugs she was taking under your, shall we say, tutelage,” and he spat out the word. “ I was there. In fact, I'm one who found the right doctors for her." He glanced at Beatrice and felt ashamed. None of these revelations were easy for Tom to reveal, but he had to spill it if he was going to get any more useful information out of this man.
"Listen, you two." Ronchev regained control and decided it was his turn to throw dirt around. "What was all this about Beatrice's water-bottle, and Klipop's drinking from it during that last rehearsal? Yes, what about that?"
The detective's expression didn't change, but Ronchev read it. "Don't even think of denying it. Derek phoned me about it yesterday. As a police detective, surely you weren't trying to hide that evidence?" Ronchev then looked at Beatrice. "Bea here might have poisoned Klipop for being part of my organization. You know she hates us so much," he said in a low tone, and, looking at Tom, added, "and you're one of her closest friends. You're not exactly an impartial judge, my dear fellow. Yes; I think I'll give your superior at the Videntia Police a call and voice my opinion, shall I? You'll be lucky to find a job washing police cars when I'm done with you."
Tom smiled, and began to pull on his goatee. "Go right ahead," he said. "My superior's name is Stedmin."
Tom was about to give the number of the police station, when Ronchev picked up the phone and started dialing it with victorious and somewhat Victorian gestures. He clearly had gotten the Videntia Police's phone number before the meeting in case of trouble. "What's your superior officer's first name?" he barked at the detective.
"Oh, well," Tom shrugged, "John Stedmin. But I'm the only one who's allowed to call him … Uncle John."
Ronchev's busy movements ground to an uneasy halt. "Ah," he registered calmly, and quietly put the receiver back on the hook. "I see. Nepotism rears its ugly head again."
"Nepotism. Like your missing Vice-President," Beatrice returned the volley. Ronchev looked up with a start; Tom looked around at her suspiciously: what the hell was this all about? He picked up pen and paper without drawing attention.
"Your Vice-President isn't on vacation," she calmly told Ronchev. "Unless it's a vacation from sanity. He's recovering in New Hampshire from a nervous breakdown…
"Listen, Willard, I've known you for years," she went happily on like a ship in a gale, "I can read you like a book. A big, fat, overwritten, remaindered book. Someone like you would never allow anybody to stay a vice-president … while recuperating in New Hampshire … while collecting a salary; that is, unless that tragic soul was a relation of yours."
Ronchev tried to fight a creeping smile, and lost. "My niece's husband," he growled, and then looked up at Tom, grinning. "She's good --"
"Stop playing games, Ronchev." Tom interrupted. "You and I are on the same side, though it doesn't seem like it.
"Listen. I don't want Beatrice's past getting out any more than you do," he reassured the other man. "So that's one thing we can agree on. There's a newspaper in our town that hates our orchestra, and they'd gobble up the story about her collapse and recovery, and spit it out all over the front page." He saw Ronchev's shoulders relax and continued, "What I want to know is this: was Klipop aware of how serious his condition really was? Now, tell me the truth and don't waste any more of my time. Or yours."
After a moment, Ronchev admitted in a businesslike fashion, "Yes. He knew he had a heart condition."
"Whose doctor told him?" Bea interrupted.
Tom was getting vexed: who was conducting this investigation, anyway?
"Our doctor, dear lady. We cover everything. That's how we knew."
"My dear", he said, his arms extending wide, "my responsibilities are many. Many. But primarily my moral responsibility is to the artists' society that I represent as a whole. And Klipop knew this. And he approved of my decisions. Always. He knew that the more he conducted, and the harder he worked, the more he benefited our society of artists, who even now are preparing to canonize him. Just think! Due to the money his recordings brought in, we've managed to lower all of our artists' life insurance by one fifth of one percent!"
"It's ironic," Bea remarked tartly, "that his family will so quickly benefit from it." She quickly got up and left the room, slamming the door behind her.
That left the two men in the room, and the silence was deafening. Tom backed out of the office, with a weak smile. As he turned to close the door, he saw Ronchev staring out the window, his mouth set in a grim line.
Tom gave a whoop and yelled, "Woman, you were really something in there!" and he gave Beatrice a wild and clumsy hug.
When he released her, she wasn't smiling. "Come on, relax. You were a big help to me in there; you know you were. Wanna join me Tuesday mornings in the police car? I've got two weeks before the others come back from vacation. What say you and I clean up Videntia's West End? I'll start you on the crack-houses; it'd probably take you ten minutes." He finally got her out of her black humor and into a gray one.
"We're still where we were with the orchestra," she said, as they entered the elevator. "This didn't solve a thing."
Tom nodded. Yes. The orchestra was still in trouble. A gleam came into Beatrice's eye and she turned to Tom. "Sophie hated Ronchev. I know in my bones that she did. I'll just tell her about my problems with him. Then she'd side with us and drop the lawsuit."
"Well …" Tom said, undecided.
"What is it?"
He took a deep breath. "Beatrice, I've told you this before. Sometimes you can intimidate people without realizing it. And anyway, I don't know that trying to drag Sophie into a hate-fest with you is the right way to be chummy with her."
"Well, Tom, excuse me for living."
He shrugged. "Oh, well, I did that years ago; nothing I could do about it, really. Never mind. I have to interview Sophie tomorrow. If it comes up, and I don't know that I want it to, I'll mention your problems with him."
"Why are you so reluctant to do this, Tom? It might take care of all of our problems…"
He was chewing one of his fingernails as the elevator door opened and they got out on the ground floor. "I don't know … yet. It's a gut feeling. About Sophie. I don't think she likes people being nasty about other people."
"That's a pose of hers, Tom."
"It may be," he said, quietly. "But I'd rather start piano than forte." Beatrice looked unconvinced as they stood in front of the lobby elevators. "Look," he explained, "To me Sophie might be someone who’s either gotten used to being treated like an idiot, or is protecting herself by pretending to be one. I don't know what she's protecting herself from … or who… but if you come up snarling, 'I hate him, too' she might regard you as …well …"
"Go on," she said, looking down unto Tom imperiously, until she remembered this was precisely what he was criticizing her for.
"She might regard you as one of the many ladies at Klipop's welcome party who treated her as just his brainless wind-up doll. Look, just let me talk to her, okay?"
The skies had opened up again, and the rain came down in sheets. Tom made up for harsh words by leaving her in the lobby to talk with Cleo, while he went to get a taxi. He got soaked hailing one down. When he waved at her from the street, she was smiling as she ran out of the building, her raincoat held over her head.
"It's okay," she yelled, as she got in. "Cleo's promised to audition!" Tom nodded. He was already preoccupied with forming questions for the people he'd be talking to the next day. Beatrice looked at him and added, "She just had one condition, though."
"While we were upstairs, she called a friend of hers and found out you play jazz flute," she laughed. "She wants you to come up and play a gig with her next month!"
When Tom protested that he wasn't that good, Beatrice suggested that she might join in herself. Tom looked at her for a moment.
It'll be like watching Queen Elizabeth doing rap and hip-hop at the same time, he thought to himself. He wouldn't miss this for the world. "All right," he said, "I'll do it if you will."
"Good. It's a deal. Besides," she said, a playful matchmaker, turning to him and tweaking his moustache, "Cleo's separated from her husband, and she thinks you're real cute …"
"Oh, no, Beatrice," Tom wailed.
copyright 2005, 2007 by Robert Bonotto. All rights reserved.