Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 11

In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, the search party has found no sign of Victor Crevecoeur but after discovering he'd left his cell phone behind and the score to his father's piano quintet is missing, they decide to call the police.

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Chapter 11 
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Kent-Clarke and Rafe started going through the parlor, gathering up some of the extra chairs that were brought in for the performance, while Dima and Devon began to move the music stands out of the way. But Mary wondered if they shouldn't leave everything be, assuming the police might consider the place a crime scene to be left undisturbed.

She blushed as she apologized. "I'm sorry, I'm a little over-wrought, right now. I think my mystery-writer mode has kicked in automatically." No one was thinking any crime had been committed, yet what were the options?

Ten minutes after Zoe’s call, a police car pulled in, parking near the barn. Two officers got out, flashlights ready, and ambled onto the porch, greeting Mary at the door with their badges ready to show. Officer Lou Tennant was a young African-American originally not from around here, and Officer Britt Schickhaus’s uniform did little to hide her physique.

While Mary was acting as the hostess, Kent-Clarke and I had inadvertently taken on the role of spokes-persons which the two officers found a bit confusing, so they asked Mary if she‘d answer their questions, instead. However, when she preferred that I did that, Kent-Clarke, with eyebrow raised, retired to the parlor. At first, I thought nothing of it.

Officer Tennant took out his notebook and proceeded to jot down the responses I gave to the various questions that his colleague asked. Perhaps this was standard, but since I rarely watched television, what did I know?

They were asking the most basic of questions at this point, the initial elementary round – who was being reported as missing, how long had he been missing, questions about his description and age, what he was wearing when he disappeared, details I suggested Mary should answer, as well as identifying each of us who were witnesses or potential suspects. The more involved questions, they said, would come later, once the detective arrived. She’d been speaking at a Rotary Club dinner over in the far end of Maskehannek Township and apologized for being a little late.

While I talked with the officers about what happened at the farmhouse this evening, Mary checked a drawer in the kitchen where she found as current a photograph of Victor as she had for their A.P.B. They passed it back and forth between them, nodding inconsequentially, clearly not recognizing him; then Officer Tennant carefully slipped it into his notebook.

At that point, we noticed another person walking toward the porch. At first, Mary and I both thought Victor had just come back. Stopping and looking around on occasion, bending down as if smelling the roses, he was certainly taking his good old time as if nothing had happened in the past hour for anyone to be alarmed about.

On more careful inspection, this new person would have been shorter than Victor, with more hair, a little heavier around the hips and for some reason, considering the day’s sweltering heat, wearing a rumpled khaki-colored raincoat.

This turned out to be Detective Jenna Ste.-Croix, an eighteen year veteran of the Maskehannek Township police force following about a decade – "give or take a few years," – as an officer with the Scranton municipal police. She had a gravely alto voice with a strong hint of beer, cigar smoke and New Jersey smog that belied her French-Canadian heritage.

Now in her mid-fifties, I would imagine, her hair no longer blond, her eyes no longer as intensely blue, her body mass index no longer as worry-free as in those heady early days with the force, she made up for it in attitude, her colleagues clearly regarding her not only as their boss, but someone respected and, possibly, feared.

Since she was a head shorter than me and I was a head shorter than Victor, perhaps the angle of the sidewalk and the dim lighting on the porch explained the difference between hope and reality.

Several of the others crowded around the front door as Det. Ste.-Croix made her studied entrance, glancing around slowly from one to another, not saying a word, tilting her head on occasion from side to side. Everyone, especially Officers Tennant and Schickhaus, held their collective breath, anticipating some inestimable wisdom that, no doubt, would crack the case wide open.

"I took the liberty," she finally spoke, "if you don't mind – well, too late if you do, sorry about that – to walk around the perimeter of the house, and noticed no signs anywhere of forced entry."

Kent-Clarke did not sound particularly impressed. "No, I don't think there would've been, considering the man who disappeared walked outside probably through one of these doors."

"But there were a ton of footprints all over the place," she insisted calmly, ignoring the obvious taunt, "as if a half-dozen people were casing out the place. How would you explain that?"

"Ah," I said, stepping forward, "after we realized he was missing – or at least, not where he'd been last seen, earlier – we broke the party up into pairs to search through the house and around the grounds. So, I'm afraid those were our footprints. Sorry."

"Party? What kind of party?" She nodded at Officer Tennant to start taking notes.

"We had some friends over tonight for dinner following this afternoon's concert at the Collier Mansion,” Mary explained. “Then we were in the parlor listening to a piece of music Victor's father had composed before he died."

This struck the detective as humorous. "Yes, well, I doubt he would've written it after he died, right?" Her laugh, forced and hollow, made a bad joke worse. The two officers laughed cautiously along with her.

As the hostess-designated spokesman, I proceeded to explain what had happened this evening, wondering about whether to include Ms. Rowberson's two enigmatic outbursts.

"And was there anything missing," she asked, looking around.

"Only the score,” I said.

“Did the Phillies lose against the Rockies today?"

"I meant the composer's original manuscript of the piece of music being performed tonight."

"What, right off the conductor's podium in front of everybody?"

"Actually, right out of the desk drawer which I'd seen Victor lock after he put it back this afternoon. It could be quite valuable, I guess."

She glanced at the photographs and knick-knacks around the rooms, wondering would anyone notice something missing except by the space it left behind.

Just then, there was a crash and a loud moan from the parlor at the opposite end of the house. It almost seemed to envelop us, as if it were trying to rush past us and out the door.

"Whoa, what the hell...?" Det. Ste.-Croix barged past me and trundled down the hallway with everyone else right behind her.

Mary Rowberson sat ramrod straight in the old wingback chair she’d been sitting in but Dr. Highwater knelt in front of her, one of the music stands knocked over, the music scattered everywhere around the floor.

I went to introduce her to our detective when the old woman started intoning indecipherable phrases like a flat and distant incantation, enough to make your hair stand on end then roll over on its side. As if on cue, Ms. Rowberson started going into an even deeper trance. I felt as if I’d walked into a carnival side-show.

Dr. Highwater gazed into her friend’s blank face as if scared for her life. Kent-Clarke started shaking his head in deep embarrassment. Victor's wife looked around for a notebook to jot down everything that was happening. Dr. Portnoy tried to hide her less than academically skeptical smile while Xaq, clearly, thought this was the kewlest thing he'd ever seen.

The first words that made any sense sounded like "Victor Crevecoeur has been kidnapped."

"Kidnapped," exclaimed Dr. Highwater, stunned and indignant. "By whom?”

"Don't knoooo-oooow," the old woman responded in long, wispy, almost desiccated tones, "can't saaaa-aaaay."

Det. Ste.-Croix stared at me as if over non-existent glasses. Her own skepticism didn't need to be mentioned. Officer Tennant was writing furiously in his note-pad. I noticed Officer Schickhaus was glancing around the room, perhaps looking for smoke to appear from some corner or a bit of floating plasma, maybe something swinging back and forth on a string.

After a short pause, it was obvious the medium had a message for me. "Tell T.R. –" then she paused as if listening carefully to someone speaking to her from a distance – “it’s from Sebastian Crevecoeur."

Everyone was silent. Rowberson held out her hands, fingers spread, eyes closed as she tilted her head back, her chin jutting forward. Her concentration was palpable: no one wanted to make a sound to distract her.

Relaxing a bit, she dropped her hands into her lap. "The only words I could make any sense out of were – 'New Coalton'..."

"But that's an old abandoned mining town just down the road," Ste.-Croix blurted out. "What does that mean?"

"For one thing," Officer Tennant noted, sounding relieved, "that's the next county which means it's outside our jurisdiction."

Aside from the legal ramifications, I asked what New Coalton was or what it meant, especially in terms of this rather cryptic message.

"Victor told me the local history – well over a century old," Mary remembered, "how many miners died from some strange disease. Every family in town lost somebody, without explanation. It would’ve made a great mystery novel!"

"They also say the town became haunted," Officer Schickhaus added, "after that big cave-in."

Officer Tennant recalled miners were left to die, with no way of rescuing them. "The guilt must’ve made their grief even worse."

No wonder the town was quickly abandoned, then torn down, even bulldozed over, an empty blotch where few trees had bothered to grow.

With that, Ms. Rowberson began coming 'round, again. Opening her eyes, she shook her head as if breaking through a bad dream, wondering why everybody was standing around so quietly and staring so intently at her.

"You said Victor was kidnapped," Dr. Highwater told her, "and Sebastian mentioned New Coalton."

"I did? Really?" She seemed quite pleased with herself.

"And who," the detective wanted to know, "is Sebastian Crevecoeur?"

"He's my grandfather," Zoe whispered, "the composer of the music we were playing tonight. He died twenty-six years ago this month – drowned in the pond – suicide..."

After this dramatic interlude, Det. Ste.-Croix shuffled casually around the room in silence, occasionally rubbing the end of her nose with her index finger, inspecting everything somewhat carelessly but then peering intently at nothing in particular. I half expected some amazingly insightful deductions in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. If she had any, however, she kept them to herself.

She watched as I pointed out where I’d been standing, and where Victor had stood before he receded further into the shadows. The other lights, I said, were turned off: it was difficult to see anything.

"Did anybody else notice something, see anything that might have been suspicious?" She glanced back at us, all shaking our heads, "no."

"We were all facing in the opposite direction, watching the players," Kent-Clarke pointed out.

"Well then, did any of you musicians,” she added as a deferential invitation, “notice anything, since I guess you were facing this way?"

"Well," Dima piped up hesitantly, "I was really the only one facing the archway, but I didn’t notice anything. I was focused intently on the music – a very difficult passage: we hadn't really rehearsed it much..."

"Even when I turned around to check on Victor's reaction, I saw nothing unusual or unexpected until after Ms. Rowberson screamed," I added.

I explained how I’d looked back at Victor, wondering what it was like for him to hear a 'new' piece by his father – and wondering what Sebastian was thinking when he wrote it. “It was pretty wild..."

"Wild? In what way, 'wild'?" Officer Tennant's pen was poised for my response.

I chuckled, wondering what was going through his mind.

"Oh, I mean just crazy and unpredictable – the music, all very fast and unsettling."

"That's why we thought Ms. Rowberson had screamed," Loni explained, nodding at her, "like it had just gotten under her skin enough that..."

"No, no," she protested, "it was because there was, first, this cold hand on the back of my neck, then I felt the evil in the room. Oh, it was horrible, this evil, truly it was!"

I could tell Det. Ste.-Croix was trying not to pay attention to Ms. Rowberson who was becoming increasingly difficult to take seriously, but an officer of the law ought to hear everything anyone had to say.

Turning her back on the parlor – on Ms. Rowberson, especially – she surveyed the hall, paying especial attention to various distances, angles and sight-lines.

"Perhaps he heard somebody in the study and went to investigate?" Mary suggested, since the desk drawer had been unlocked and emptied.

“Mrs. Crevecoeur, do you know anyone who would have wanted to steal this song?”

“Quintet,” I corrected Det. Ste.-Croix, “the score was a piano quintet, not a song.” I always hated when people called everything a “song.”

Apparently, none of the others knew what Victor kept locked up in that drawer. Was this enough to make me a suspect? Like I’d had time to steal the score, kill Victor and hide the body…

"Or maybe he just went outside for some fresh air," Kent-Clarke suggested, "and somebody, you know – abducted him from there?"

"But there was no sign of a scuffle, of anyone being, say, dragged off against his will?" Ste.-Croix turned to look quizzically at him, prompting him to explain himself. There was no explanation forthcoming: he just shrugged his shoulders.

"If your husband doesn't come back soon," Officer Tennant explained to Mary, "we can file the regulation missing person's report, then after that, all the police in the area can be on the look-out for him."

"Was your husband under any additional stress,” Det. Ste.-Croix continued, “any reason that he might have wanted to, say... run away from home?"

"No, not that I’m aware – beyond the usual since he'd been laid off. He wasn't on any medication..." Mary's voice trailed off.

Kent-Clarke then suggested, since Victor just disappeared, maybe he had been abducted by aliens?

"Damn, now why hadn't I thought of that!" Once she laughed, it took several seconds for Ste.-Croix to realized he was serious, that there’s a chance he and the old woman were some kind of team. She hated having to give up a perfectly good dinner with the Rotary Club, trading in roast chicken for chase of wild goose.

Officer Tennant pored over his notes. "There's no way of knowing for sure, given all the footprints around the house, but I didn't see anything that wasn't from someone at least wearing shoes of some kind."

"Even if he'd been carried off by a herd of wildebeasts," Ste.-Croix noted, scowling at us, "we wouldn't be able to tell what with all the trampling everybody did around the house, obliterating any suspicious footprints.”

"We'll look around the perimeters, see if there's anything else we can find." And with that, Schickhaus and Tennant headed out the door.

As I understood it, no one heard an intruder, Victor's car was still parked at the barn; the study door was standing open but Victor hadn't been standing near the study when I'd last seen him. There wasn't time for him to enter the study, unlock the drawer and disappear with the manuscript by the time Ms. Rowberson screamed.

Mulling over her options and how she would break the news, Det. Ste.-Croix reluctantly announced, “Without some kind of actual hard physical evidence – well, I have to say, quite frankly, we just don't have a case, here."

Ms. Rowberson, fussing with her shawl around her shoulders, spoke up once again, shaking her head as if she no longer needed any convincing. "He was definitely abducted. If I'd said so, then it is so."

Det. Ste.-Croix nodded, thanking her for that, then looked at the maestro to see if he had anything to add. He did not.

"Of course, either way," she thought, "they're both saying 'abduction,' but... really?" It couldn't just be the guy got bored and decided to leave his wife? But just walk away into the night? Quite a production…

The others began moving back into the parlor as Mary, the mindful hostess, brought in trays of chocolate-chip cookies, apologizing that the evening hadn't turned out as planned.

Ms. Rowberson mentioned how Chopin loved chocolate-chip cookies.

"The closest thing we have to a case,” Ste.-Croix told me, “is that nut-case..."

I wasn't so sure she was the only one.

= = = = = = =

To be continued

- Dick Strawser

The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2012

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