Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 8

In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, Richard Kerr was reacting to hearing a work composed by his friend Sebastian who'd died over twenty-five years ago but which, according to the manuscript, had only been completed six months ago. That wasn't the strangest thing: at a particularly intense moment, Mary Rowberson, a medium well-known for her conversations with dead composers, screamed and fainted.

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Chapter 8
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Suddenly, the room was alive with activity. Some rushed to help Ms. Rowberson, others pushed them back, shouting to give her air. Victor's wife ran past me toward the kitchen to get a glass of water. Rogers Kent-Clarke, kneeling beside her, held her carefully in his arms while Dr. Highwater patted her hand and Dr. Portnoy massaged her forehead. The musicians moved their chairs and music stands back out of the way, making more room where the old woman had fallen, as Cameron hurried to open a side window, hoping to let in a breeze.

Mary rushed back in with a glass of water, asking me as she hurried by if I'd seen where Victor had gone. I felt foolish looking around, not knowing what to do, which way to turn.

"No," I told her, "he'd been in the hallway, but when I turned to..." and then left it hanging unfinished in the air.

Someone had to say it.

I think it was Devon who shouted out, without thinking, "is there a doctor in the house," bringing everyone to a momentary standstill: in fact, three of us had our doctorates.

In the sudden quiet, an eggshell-thin voice calmly pointed out, "Yes, Helen's a doctor."

Ms. Rowberson at that moment was just coming to.

When we all laughed, she looked sheepishly around and asked what was so funny though we were too glad she was okay to bother answering. With great effort, she managed to sit up, carefully adjusting her shawl.

Helen told her apparently she had fainted, too overcome by the music, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one in the room who'd been concerned she might have had a heart attack or a stroke.

"No, dear, I don't think so," Ms. Rowberson protested, catching her breath. With a little help, she carefully repositioned herself into her chair.

"Everything was becoming so turbulent and dark, frightfully dark," she whimpered, closing her eyes. "I felt this pounding, like I was being chased. Then everything started to come to a boil – then the wind... the rain..."

The conductor patted her hand somewhat condescendingly, suggesting to the others Ms. Rowberson was just having what might be called "Stendahl’s Reaction" to everything going on in the music, whatever the composer himself may have intended.

He explained it wasn't uncommon for someone to become so overwrought by such hyper-emotional music, an adjective I think would have amused Sebastian.

"Oh no," she meekly insisted, "it wasn't the music at all, you see. Something evil has happened – definitely. I could feel it. It was cold and awful, like that hand on the back of my neck." She pulled her shawl even tighter and shivered as if she'd caught a chill, the slight breeze, barely noticeable, perhaps disagreeing with her.

This old woman, supposedly a medium, was definitely battier than I'd expected, but I reconsidered this, thinking it wouldn't be too many years till I might find myself in the same boat with only one oar.

Mary, going over to close the window and looking out onto the porch, asked again if anybody might have seen where Victor went. She peered out into the side yard already sunken in shadows after sunset.

Looking around to see if Victor had returned, I first went over to check the study, but the room was empty – and cold.

Victor'd taken me in here almost immediately, eager to show me the manuscript of his father's quintet. But I don't recall the room being this chilly, then, certainly not as hot as the day had been. When we left the room, he was careful about locking the score away, closing the door behind us when the others had arrived. During the performance, my mind had been focused more on the brief glimpse I'd gotten of Sebastian's manuscript rather than on Victor's secrecy: what did it mean now finding this drawer unlocked, partially open – and empty?

Pulling the door shut behind me, I stood in the hallway looking around like a lost soul trying to get his bearings. That Victor, for whatever reasons, would turn around and walk away seemed... well, strange. To say he'd "disappeared" sounded not only like an over-reaction, it was definitely premature. But, given the timing, also a little bit spooky. Where would he have gone and, considering it hadn't been that long since I'd last looked around and noticed him standing there – right there (I actually pointed at the spot) – where could he have gotten to?

Standing on that spot, half-expecting to feel some kind of chill, I surveyed what Victor would've seen if he were still standing there: everyone in the parlor, fussing with Ms. Rowberson; Mary by the corner window; the study on his right; the powder-room on his left; turning around, the staircase and, past the kitchen and dining-room, the front door.

There was no light visible from under the powder-room door, but I cautiously knocked anyway. As I'd expected, there was no response. I'd already checked the study and found nothing there – beyond the open, empty drawer. He could've gone to the kitchen for a drink, but Mary already went there, fetching a glass of water for the old woman. Was he sitting in the dining-room in the dark, overcome by the ghost of his father which the music might have conjured up? Was he lying somewhere helpless, the victim of a heart attack or stroke, himself?

"Some of you told me maybe he's just gone to the bathroom or perhaps he needed to go outside for some fresh air." Victor's wife, wringing her hands, began pacing uneasily, glancing occasionally out the window. You couldn't miss the mounting concern in her voice. "But he would've come back by now, don't you think? So where is he?"

"I'm sure, if we remain calm, there's a perfectly logical explanation for everything – well," Kent-Clarke added, looking at Ms. Rowberson, "almost everything."

"Exactly," I added. "Let's look around and I'm sure everything will turn out fine."

"No," Ms. Rowberson said, raising her hand, "I'm convinced something is wrong." Then she corrected herself: "or depending on your viewpoint – right. You see, something has happened here, tonight, while you were listening to the music..."

Confused, everyone in the room looked expectantly from Mary back to Ms. Rowberson but she sat there calmly, satisfied this needed no explanation.

Clearly, the old woman was getting on everybody's nerves. I remembered reading some articles about her several years ago, how she was apparently receiving regular visits from dead composers like Chopin and Liszt, how they'd show up unannounced to play her some of their latest compositions or maybe just sit around and talk about nothing in particular over coffee. She never mentioned lesser-known composers like Ludwig Spohr or Giovanni Sgambatti whose posthumous careers could have benefited from such a marketing boost – only a few famous ones, select favorites from the most basic music appreciation books.

Who brought her, anyway, I wondered: was she a friend of Sebastian's or Victor's? All I knew was she'd come with Dr. Highwater, one of Victor's mentors, but otherwise there didn't seem to be any connection. Did someone expect Sebastian, more recently deceased than Liszt, would actually contact this woman? That seemed so far-fetched, it almost made me laugh.

Finding a piece of paper, Mary jotted down every place she could think of, places we ought to check, places where Victor, for whatever reason, might have gone. It occurred to me this was the most logical course, given Mary's experience with writing her own mysteries: her insights could come in handy or prove, perhaps, a little too imaginative.

Every now and then, I looked around half expecting Victor to walk in and ask what we'd like to assign him to do, as if it were one of those Murder Mystery Weekends at the local bed-and-breakfast.

Kent-Clarke and I divided everybody up for the search, suggesting where to look and what, possibly, to look for. We then traded cell-phone numbers, those of us who had them, to keep in touch, if need be. Dr. Highwater we figured would stay behind with Ms. Rowberson, while Mary and Xaq should stay there, too, in case Victor returned.

But Xaq had no intention of staying behind in the safety of the parlor. "He's my grandfather," he protested, standing his ground. Besides, I figured he'd probably want to get away from the creepy Ms. Rowberson.

So I suggested he and his mother check upstairs, giving the 'all-clear' like they do on the cop shows if everything's okay.

"And if everything's not," Zoe said uneasily, "you'll know when you hear me scream."

Not knowing what we might find, assuming there was anything to find, we started fanning out, agreeing to check back in ten minutes.

In all, that left ten of us divided into five pairs, each with our own specific assignments. We gathered by the side-board in the dining-room where Mary managed to find enough flashlights or lanterns for everybody (an old farmhouse when the lights went out during a storm, she explained, always freaked her out, so they kept plenty on hand).

We were all conscious how strange it must have appeared, his just wandering off like that, and knew this could be serious. It wasn't a game, but we also knew Victor sometimes just liked his privacy.

Dima and Loni would take the downstairs which they thought sounded too easy considering most of us had checked all the rooms already, until they realized this would also include the basement and the storm cellar. Zoe and Xaq would check each of the upstairs bedrooms plus the back sitting-room that overlooked the woods – oh, and the attic, too.

Devon and Rafe would take care of the back porch and the back yard with its little seating area by the garden. Cameron and I had the path through the field leading down to the pond. Kent-Clarke and Dr. Portnoy would cover the porch by way of the study (a door I'd forgotten), then check the driveway and barn.

Before we took off to our individual destinations, Zoe nervously asked me to check the pond very carefully, though she wouldn't explain why. Only then did I realize this might be more serious than I thought.

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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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