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Authors: Morley Torgov

Murder in A-Major

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Murder in A-Major

Morley Torgov

Text © 2008 by Morley Torgov

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, digital, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior consent of the publisher.

Cover design: Vasiliki Lenis

  

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program.

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (BPIDP) for our publishing activities.

RendezVous Crime
an imprint of Napoleon & Company
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
www.napoleonandcompany.com

Printed in Canada

12 11 10 09 08    5 4 3 2 1

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Torgov, Morley, 1927-
                Murder in A major / Morley Torgov.

ISBN 978-1-894917-65-0

               I. Title.
PS8589.O675M87 2008          C813'.54          C2008-900032-3

To Anna Pearl, Sarah Jane and Douglas, Carrie and Alexander, and to Benjamin, Sydney Allison, Rebecca, and Marshall

Prologue

M
adam Vronsky, my piano teacher, politely but firmly removes my hands from the keyboard. Gently she closes the tattered volume of music and places it on the lid of the instrument. She turns to me and gazes intently into my eyes, a questioning expression on her face. For a full minute she stares at me, looking puzzled, sitting on a slim bentwood chair close by, so close in fact that my nostrils pick up the not unpleasant scent of her garlicky breath. She is Russian, warm-blooded but even-tempered, a woman of endless patience. At last she speaks, asking in a voice buttered with sympathy, “Tell me, Inspector Preiss, why are you doing this?”

“You mean playing Beethoven?”

“I mean playing the piano. Why?” She gives me a sad smile and softly repeats, “Why?”

“Because I love the piano,” I tell her. “Because I love music. Because I would love to perform these Beethoven sonatas decently one day in the not-too-distant future. All thirty-two.” I am not a religious person, but for some reason I add, “Lord willing.”

Madam Vronsky shakes her head. “If the great Franz Liszt cannot properly play Beethoven's sonatas…if the great Clara Schumann finds them daunting—” She does not finish the sentence, nor does she need to. The point is made.

“But I don't aim to be great, Madam Vronsky,” I protest mildly. “I want only to achieve some sense of fulfillment, nothing more.”

“My dear Inspector,” she says, “listen to the advice of an old woman. You will only eat yourself up with frustration and disappointment. Eventually your limitations will transform your love of the piano into bitterness, even hatred. So, love music, attend concerts, play for your own amusement…
private
amusement, I mean…but realistically, ‘fulfillment' is out of the question, I'm afraid.” As though softening the impact of this advice, she places a consoling hand over mine.

Despite her description of herself as an old woman, Madam Vronsky is really not old enough to be motherly to me. I guess her age to be fifty (which makes her my senior by a mere ten years). A riding accident in St. Petersburg years earlier reduced the span of her left hand, cutting short her career as a concert pianist. Instead she became one of Russia's finest teachers, leaving her native country when the music conservatory here in Düsseldorf offered her the post of dean. That I managed several months ago to engage her as my teacher does not speak to my talent; rather it speaks to my brazenness, and my ability to afford her fees.

“Does this mean you no longer wish to instruct me?” I ask, sounding like a spurned lover.

She gives me another sad smile. “How can I be less than honest with a pupil who happens to be one of Düsseldorf's senior officers of the law? In my heart, I feel as though I am falsely taking your money, Inspector.”

Now I place a hand over hers. “Thank you for your honesty, but I truly wish to go on.”

She sighs deeply, reaches for the Beethoven volume, opens it to where we left off and places it on the rack before me. “Once again, then,” she says quietly. “Remember, Opus 7 is marked
allegro molto e con brio.
But for now, try it half-speed. Watch the left-hand eighth notes, and very little pedal. A crisp attack, that's what I need to hear.”

Not more than a dozen bars into the opening movement, we are interrupted by a resolute knock on the door of my apartment.

“Excuse me, Madam Vronsky,” I say, rising from the piano and going to the door. I open it to find my next-door neighbours, an elderly pair of bachelors, standing there with critical looks on their faces. They are retired senior civil servants with a reputation for crankiness.

“I do apologize,” I begin. “I assume you're here to complain about the noise—”

“Not at all,” the crankier of the two replies. “We're here to complain about the
tempo
.”

Such is life in Düsseldorf. Play a passage from a Beethoven sonata and, the next thing you know, two old curmudgeons, virtual strangers really, are at your door presuming to advise you that you've played it badly. In a city like Hamburg, where I began my career as a young police officer twenty years ago, such an incident would never occur. By which I mean that, had I played the Opus 7 badly in that city, anyone within hearing would suffer in silence. Hamburg, I should explain, lies northwest of Düsseldorf, and anyone who knows Germany at all understands that as one travels north and west in this country, the citizenry becomes more and more reticent. In fact, by the time one gets to the extreme northwest, say to a city like Wilhelmshaven, one is struck by the fact that the local populace barely speak to each other at all!

Düsseldorf stands in stark contrast to much of the country. None of your stiff-necked Prussianism here as there is in Berlin, nor the sooty nose-to-the-grindstone industriousness of Stuttgart, nor—thank heaven!—the cold-bloodedness of Frankfurt, where men, cooped up in banks built to resemble Greek temples, spend their entire lives doing nothing but entering numbers in ledgers with quill pens.

Düsseldorf lives. And I live in Düsseldorf. And if I never live long enough to play the first movement of Beethoven's Opus 7 up to speed, I can at least legitimately claim to be living my life
allegro molto e con brio.

My custom after a lesson with Madam Vronsky—an exercise that leaves me midway between exhilaration and exhaustion—is to seek tranquillity in a generous snifter of cognac. Like my self-appointed music critics next door, I am a bachelor and have no one with whom to share these rare peaceful moments (except when a certain cellist by the name of Helena Becker happens to be visiting, about which I will say more later). And so, in solitude, I sat back in my favourite chair and was sipping cognac and feeling my limbs go slack and my thoughts drift into nothingness when there came another knock on my door, actually a series of sharp raps that conveyed an unmistakable sense of urgency. I had already put in a long day at the Constabulary, followed by a strenuous hour with Madam Vronsky and was tempted to cry out, “Go away, whoever you are!” Groaning, I rose from my chair to respond.

At my door stood a middle-aged woman looking breathless and about to collapse. Her chest was heaving, but she managed to utter “Inspector Preiss?” Without waiting for my response, she thrust a small envelope into my hand, turned about abruptly and began to take her leave.

“Wait,” I called out. “Can I offer you some water?” I expected the poor woman to expire before she could make her way down three flights of stairs leading to the exit.

“No no, I must return immediately,” she called back, not stopping.

“But who sent you?”

There was no reply. It seemed pointless to follow after her, so I closed my door and tore open the envelope—

Chapter One

I
t was shortly after nine o'clock on that late-March evening when I received that note, delivered to my rooms by the woman who, it turned out, served as the housekeeper to the family of Robert and Clara Schumann. The note was signed “Clara Schumann”. The penmanship was graceful and controlled; the message, however, was urgent, summoning me to come without delay while at the same time apologizing for the imposition. At that hour it was always a challenge to find a carriage in the dark, deserted streets of Düsseldorf, but luck was with me, and I managed to show up at the doorstep of No. 15 Bilkerstrasse just as the clock in the Schumanns' entrance hall was striking a quarter of ten.

I found only Robert Schumann awaiting me. The man wore a bulky woollen robe and leather slippers that had seen better times. I thought his attire odd, bearing in mind that I was a guest in his house for the first time and that we could hardly be considered intimate friends or acquaintances. What's more, his hair was unbrushed, and I gathered that he had neglected to shave his face for a day or two. His handshake was weak, the fingers cold and clammy.

Schumann offered no excuse for his untidy appearance, and being aware of the man's reputation as a musical genius, I took for granted that social niceties were somehow inconsistent with creativity. Artists are artists, and that's all there is to it, I told myself.

We stood—or rather I stood—by the hearth in the Schumann parlour. Schumann chose to pace to and fro, rubbing his fingers together as though attempting to force from the bones the damp chill that penetrated everything this time of the year. I was tempted to stoke what little fire flickered in the hearth, but something about the look on my host's pale face told me that creature comforts were not uppermost on our agenda at this moment.

“Madam Schumann's note,” I said, breaking an awkward silence, “indicated she was in the midst of some grave emergency.”

“This does not concern my wife,” Schumann said flatly. I gathered by the chill in his voice that the couple had just engaged in some disagreement, possibly vehement—a feature of married life with which I, though I am a bachelor, am not unfamiliar. “Somebody is deliberately driving me into a state of insanity, Preiss.”

“I'm sorry. I don't understand, Maestro—”

He stopped pacing suddenly, and cocked his head to one side. In a coarse whisper, he called to me: “There, Preiss…there it is, it's returned. My ears…it's piercing my eardrums. Can you not hear it?”

“Hear
what
, Maestro?”

“The A…the damned incessant A.”

I don't know what, at that moment, irritated him more—the noise he purported to hear, or the look of complete bewilderment on my face. “The note on the musical scale…the A above middle C…as though coming from some hellish tuning fork…or sometimes from an oboe. No, wait…now it's from a keyboard! Don't tell me you can't hear it, Preiss!”

My hearing, like my eyesight, is acute. Yet I heard nothing. And making a quick survey of the room, I saw nothing that could possibly torment this man to the point of madness. There were two grand pianos back-to-back in the parlour, but the lids of both keyboards were shut so that only a ghost could have sent into the air the sound that was now causing this poor soul to tear his hair.

“Are you quite certain, sir,” I carefully ventured, “that someone is deliberately producing the A sound that is so repugnant to your ears? After all, certain noises occur throughout the normal course of a day which are entirely innocent, even though one finds them extremely disagreeable.”

Schumann rejected this possibility with a curt “Ridiculous!”

This rebuff struck me as rude, and I decided that, genius or not, the man owed me at least a modicum of courtesy. “I'm only trying to be of some assistance, Dr. Schumann,” I said with some firmness. “Perhaps you would prefer to postpone this discussion until—”

The testiness in my voice must have had some effect. “I'm sorry, Inspector,” Schumann said, “but you seem to take me for some sort of imbecile. I'm not a stranger to my own surroundings.”

From my years on the police force, I knew just about every corner, every road, every back alley, even the sewer system, of Düsseldorf. As well, I knew every principal building from one end of the city to the other. “There is a Lutheran church in the vicinity,” I said. “When the organist practises, the sounds of his instrument can often be heard through the open doors and windows of the chapel. Two blocks away, toward the river, there is a foundry. Sometimes one can hear the workmen pounding away on their anvils. At times, Maestro, there's a kind of musicality to their hammering and forging.”

This time Schumann shook his head from side to side violently.

“Chimes, Maestro,” I said. “Are there any chimes in the house? Say from a clock, or maybe wind chimes outdoors, that might be activated by drafts or the ordinary movements of people about the place?”

Schumann thought for a moment. “The only chimes are those in the entrance hall clock which you heard as you arrived. I have perfect pitch. The sound they make is E-flat. I tell you, Inspector,” Schumann said, “it's a waste of time to seek some mechanical answer, some—as you put it before—
innocent
explanation for what is happening to me.”

I said, “Perhaps tomorrow, after a good night's sleep—”

“A good night's sleep! My God, man, I've forgotten what a good night's sleep is like. Look at me, Preiss, do I appear like a man who can simply lay his head on a pillow and go off to dreamland? To find even a moment's peace, a moment's rest, I'm obliged night after night to drink myself into a stupor, and even then the sound…the
sound
…”

Schumann's voice trailed off. He stood before me speechless, exhausted, a human wreck in a rumpled robe and tattered slippers.

I said, “First thing tomorrow morning, I will get right to work on this. Trust me, sir; I will spare no effort to get to the bottom of this matter.”

“No, no,” Schumann cried, seizing my arm, “tomorrow morning is not good enough, Preiss. I am in agony, don't you see? You must begin now, tonight.”

“Maestro,” I replied, “I see that you're deeply troubled, and rightly so, but—”

Schumann's grip on my arm tightened. “So you, too, are patronizing me now, is that it? You're like the rest of them…my wife, my doctors, my so-called friends. You're thinking I've gone mad and hoping by tomorrow they'll have carted poor old Schumann off to some asylum and you'll be relieved of this nonsense. Admit it, Preiss; that's what you're thinking.”

The man happened to be right. And yet, if Robert Schumann was astute enough to correctly read
my
mind, then how could I possibly regard him as being out of
his
mind?

BOOK: Murder in A-Major
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