Jorge Mendoza had reported his wife missing. The department was obliged to treat the report seriously. Oscar and Jose drove out to his club to take a statement
The club was quite an impressive place, from the outside at least: not far from Castellana and close to the football stadium. There were signs outside promising salsa with authentic Cuban rhythms, all the way from Habana, but everyone knew the place was just another tourist trap, even when the coaches that you’d see parked up outside every night weren’t around.
In the daytime at least, the interior was not as impressive as the façade. Any place that comes to life in the night has a bleached out dirty look when the sun is up, especially in the mornings. There was a stale reek of alcohol that a solitary lady with a mop was attacking with forlorn determination. On the low stage at the far end of the club, only the piano was still standing. The other musicians had taken their instruments with them, even the drums. The piano looked lonely and battered; its lacquer scratched and peeling.
– It still plays well, Jorge assured them.
He’d come out from behind the bar and was observing as Oscar peered closely at the instrument.
– Feel free to try it, if you play.
– No thanks, Oscar replied; we’ve come about your wife.
When they’d finished, Jose read the statement back to Mendoza and he confirmed that it was true. After that they left the club. Oscar said that it was the time for a coffee. Jose knew a place nearby.
– What did you think of what he said? Oscar asked.
– I wouldn’t say he’s lying exactly, Jose replied, but there was something he’s not telling us.
Oscar seemed more inclined to stir his coffee than drink it.
– This reminds me of a very old case I read about once, he ventured.
– I suppose you’re going to tell me all about it?
Leopold Gottfried was a free spirit as well as a brilliant composer. In every age there are some whose genius leaves behind an enduring legacy that enhances their reputation as the years pass. Then there are others, equally talented perhaps, who make barely a ripple: their work sinks from obscurity to oblivion through no fault of their own. Leo was one of those.
It was an age when composers were no longer content to hang around court churning out melodies to order. They had discovered self expression and all become idealists. Of course, given the price of sheet music and rehearsal space, they still needed sponsors to bring their ideals to life. Leo did not suffer any false modesty regarding his gift; and in due course the brash, abrasive youth came to the attention of certain Bavarian patron of the arts.
The Count of X was a genuine nobleman with his own family seat in the mountains. He lavished praise and support on artists of all kinds, but architects and musicians were his obsessions. It was assumed by everyone that the Count was fabulously rich, although after his death, it turned out that he’d squandered the family wealth and near ruined himself adding ever more grandiose extensions to the ancestral Schloss and seeking out new music fit to be heard in its booming halls.
Leo was more than happy to move into the palace; and pleased rather than dismayed when the Count seemed to forget about his existence almost as soon as he arrived. He had everything he needed. There was even a competent string quartet in residence and its bored members were willing enough to test Leo’s compositional ideas.
The problems started when Leo fell in love with the Count’s sister.
By all accounts she was no longer a young girl when they met and she was rather stout, but there is no reason to suppose that the couple’s affection was not genuine. Leo lived in his head and the Countess was a strong, independent minded lady with a ready wit and her feet firmly planted on the ground, unlike her brother. It seemed clear to Eugenie that she was not likely to marry anyone else. She’d long ago tired of her brother’s talk of finding a prince with a bloodline worthy to be joined to their own family.
There seemed no possibility of the Count producing an heir. The artists he invited to the Schloss were invariably male and physically handsome. Eugenie was the only lady of any rank in the castle and it was hinted that the tenderness which the Count showed for his sister was something beyond normal fraternal love.
The Count would never agree to give his beloved sister away to a low born penniless musician, however much he adored the arts. He was terribly conventional in his attitudes even though he liked to dress in uniform like the monarch of a bygone age and sometimes behaved quite outrageously.
Of course, the liaison was discovered and the Count reacted like a mediaeval tyrant. He announced to everyone that Leo was moving into the tower of the Schloss so as to remain undisturbed while he worked on a very special commission. The Count was all smiles as he told them that he’d dreamed of a melody that was the most soothing, consoling and perfect piece of music that had ever existed. It had been a supernatural vision and Leo had agreed to help him recover the sound of it. Until further notice, Leo would be staying in the tiny conservatory at the very top of the tower, taking his meals and sleeping in the small adjoining bedroom. The rooms were directly above the Count’s own private chambers that were always kept locked from the inside every night (another of the Count’s peculiarities). There was a piano in the top room and a speaker tube device that would allow the Count and no-one else to eavesdrop on Leo’s progress.
In spite of the smiles and the kid words, everyone knew what it meant. There was no way down from that tower except through the Count’s apartment, unless you learned to fly over the decorative battlement and down the sheer face of the wall. Leo was a prisoner.
No-one heard any more about Leo for more than two months and no-one dared to ask after him. Meals were carried up the steps and it was assumed that empty plates and full chamber pots came down. In those days and in that place, commoners could still disappear without undue worry for persons of nobility who had been inconvenienced by them. As for the other guests, the Count was unpredictable and no-one wanted to end in the same condition as Leo.
Then one morning in November, the Count failed to open his door to let in the family retainer who delivered his breakfast. Whenever he was at the Schloss, the Count had dined on the same food, brought at the same time, by the same servant, every morning since his childhood. Clearly this was a serious matter.
When the servant went to alert the Countess, Eugenie was missing from her chambers. The domestic staff were thrown into panic. When they eventually broke down the main door to the Count’s room, all the other entrances and windows were locked and secure as he’d always insisted. The Count was lying where he’d fallen, by the great fireplace, with the speaker tube cupped to his ear and a serene expression on his face.
Jose had been sitting still for a long time. He shifted uncomfortably to relieve the ache in his buttocks.
– The musician killed him, I suppose.
– All the doors and windows were barred.
Jose thought about it for a moment.
– He poured poison down the tube and into the Count’s ear.
– Like Hamlet’s uncle, Oscar laughed; I never knew you were so cultured Jose. But no. The Count was an eminent man and the death was unusual. There was a proper autopsy of course. Poison was ruled out.
– Then what?
Here the story becomes uncertain. No-one in that part of Bavaria heard from Leo or the Countess ever again. The story is that Leo did exactly what the Count demanded. He produced a composition of such transcendent beauty and harmony that a susceptible listener like the Count became captivated by hearing it. Savants have theorised that the body’s heart and vital functions quickly became attuned to the music, so that the Count’s life was synchronised with it. It was quite a simple piece, supposedly, with no real beginning or end. You could play it over and over indefinitely. The final cadences give the impression that the tempo is slowing, although really it stays the same; but the pulse and breathing and the brain activity of the hearer do slow down. The listener becomes more and more relaxed, more and more adagio, until eventually he stops.
– If you don’t mind me saying so, Jose commented; that sounds like the sort of fairy tale that gets invented to cover up a family scandal.
– There were no other explanations.
– What happened to the music? It should be famous.
– There was sheet music left behind in the conservatory. All anyone could remember was that it was a piano score in D minor. The manuscript was at the keyboard and there was an open window where a rope had been lowered. Leo must have had help. None of the servants wanted to touch the music score: they imagined it must contain witchcraft.
There was another musician staying at the castle at that time; a tall, bony-fingered man with long hair and a wild expression. People said there was something devilish about him, except that in fact he had been ordained as a priest. Anyway, this man went to the tower and spent some hours alone in the room with the piano. When he emerged, he said that he’d had to burn the manuscript. It was the only copy.
– Very convenient, Jose snorted. If you’re finished, we have to go. Or would you like another coffee?
– I was hoping you might have picked up something about our present case, Oscar told him
Jose looked puzzled.
– Back at the club, Oscar prompted him; the piano.
– No Paco.
– And no cigarette butts overflowing in Paco’s ashtray, even though the cleaning woman hadn’t been near the stage when we were there.
– I’ve never been in that place when Paco’s not been sitting at the piano, day or night, Jose admitted. Always with a cigarette burning and a finger of the best whisky in front of him that he never seems to touch. I thought he was a fixture.
– Me too. If he wasn’t working he was picking at some obscure chord or working out the parts for some tune that he’d be humming. But now no Paco and no Mrs Mendoza.
– So maybe?
– You saw Jorge. He was more sad than worried. Marilou is young enough to be his daughter and he always claims Paco is like a son to him. What do you think?
– I think we shouldn’t waste too much time looking for the missing wife.
– Musicians you see. Even if the tune that lulls you to death isn’t genuine, the musicians are always the same. And they’re unreliable. The women seem to like them though, better than policemen anyway.
Jose returned their empty cups to the counter. Oscar stood up.
– Come on, he said; let’s go and find ourselves some real police work.