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VANESSA HYLAS ran her fingers lightly over the curve of the forte-piano, enjoying its long, narrow shape—more like a boat than a harp—even as she pondered how she would contrive to keep the two-hundred-year-old instrument tuned through an entire recital. “We’ll have to have two intermissions,” she told her manager as she continued to caress the glossy wood. “And retune it both times.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said Howard Faster, making a note on his Palm Pilot. “I think people will make allowances for the instrument. This isn’t just any antique. It is the Dziwny forte-piano—the very one he ...”

“He killed himself playing; yes, I know,” said Vanessa, more bluntly than she had intended. She coughed and spoke again, more gently. “Stasio Dziwny performed for the last time on this instrument. It was December 8th, 1803, if I recall the date, a pre-holiday private concert at his patron’s most important Schloss, Schloss Lowenhoff. There were about fifty people present, not counting servants, according to what I’ve read.” Her shiny, close-cropped, dark-blonde hair was starting to pale around her face, the fluctuating shade not unlike the beautifully grained wood of the fortepiano’s case. At forty-three, she had grown into her angular features and was much more attractive than she had been in youth, something she recognized with a trace of humor. She held herself well, almost as if she were about to play for an audience rather than test an old instrument for the first time.

“Yes,” said Faster, fussing with his expensive regimental tie. Smoothing his thinning, colorless hair with one blunt-fingered hand, he looked around for the warehouse manager among the vast collection of pianos. “It amazes me that it’s in such good condition, considering where it’s been for the last couple of centuries, or almost a couple of centuries. It’s a miracle they found it.”

Vanessa nodded. “In an attic in an Austrian Schloss—not Lowenhoff; Schaumbach, or something like that—according to the documents; you saw them,” she said, repeating what she had been told just four days ago. “Stored away in a sealed room on the top floor. You wouldn’t think the Graf would care to keep the thing, even locked away like that, if the stories about it are true, and considering his family’s role in what happened.”

“Perhaps he wanted to make sure it never got used again,” Faster suggested. “You know, take it out of circulation.”

“If that was his intention, he did a great job with it,” said Vanessa. “It makes the provenance a simple matter.”

“Well, yes; the documents look to be authentic,” said Faster in a resigned tone of voice. “They’ve been vetted legit. All the tests have come out supporting the claim. This is the Dziwny forte-piano.”

The two were silent as Vanessa pointed to an irregular stain on the bass end of the keyboard. “Brown. It could be blood.”

“It could,” said Faster uneasily. “Or something from being stored that way, or a natural discoloration of some sort. You can bet the Graf had it cleaned.”

“A man blowing his brains out all over a forte-piano must have been messy, much more than this stain’s-worth—there’d be blood and skull fragments, and brain matter, according to what I’ve researched; those old pistols did a lot of damage,” said Vanessa distantly. “I would have expected ... I don’t know: something a lot worse than this.” She pulled the bench out and sat down at the instrument, trying an experimental chord.

A jangle of untuned strings shuddered out of the forte-piano.

“Ye gods!” Faster exclaimed. “They said it would be tuned.”

“Not yet,” said Vanessa, pulling her hands back as if scalded. “There are strings to be replaced, I’d have to say. They’ll need to give it a thorough going-over before it’ll be ready for the public.”

“No kidding,” said Faster. “I’ll call Shotwell right away. This is not the sound we want; I don’t care how authentic it is. He’s got to improve it.” He pulled his cell phone out of his breast pocket and tapped in a ten-digit number, then turned away to create the illusion of privacy.

Vanessa made a point of ignoring Faster’s end of the conversation, putting all her attention on the forte-piano. She played a few of the keys, her touch unusually hesitant, and winced at the sound the ancient, neglected strings made. At last she contented herself with playing one of Dziwny’s own compositions half an inch above the keys, hearing the correct notes in her mind. Only when Faster was through did she relent, swinging around on the bench and looking directly at him. “Well? What did he say?”

“He said he’d arrange everything, since he knows you want to perform with it,” said Faster, frowning as he spoke. “You wouldn’t believe what he had the nerve to tell me.”

“He said he couldn’t get his usual restoration crew to work on it,” she said promptly.

“You overheard,” Faster accused.

“No. It’s just a guess. But you’ve read the historical material about it, and you can bet Shotwell’s crew has, too, and know about the stories they’ve told about this instrument. It’s one of the most enduring fables in the classical music world, the forte-piano that compels those who play it to commit suicide.” She laughed. “Only one suicide has ever been proven in relation to this, and that was Dziwny’s own; the instrument’s been missing for close to two hundred years, so there’s no other accounts of it doing in anyone else. The Graffin died some months later in childbirth, not at the keyboard. And it turns out now that the forte-piano was put into the attic shortly afterward, so no one else had the chance to kill themselves while playing.”

“How do you account for the stories, then?” Faster asked, interested for promotional reasons.

“Because there was so much scandal around Dziwny’s love affair with the Graffin, assuming the rumors about the affair were true: there’s no proof that it was ever anything more than gossip. Still, it was quite an occurrence. His suicide was so dramatic. The public loved ghost stories back then, and the events were irresistible. And there was that awful book that came out in 1850, turning the whole story into a complicated Byronic romance. It’s become difficult to separate fact from fiction.” Vanessa laced her fingers together and looked directly at Faster. “How long is it going to take, getting this ready?”

“Shotwell said probably a month,” said Faster.

“That cuts into the Canadian tour,” Vanessa reminded him. “But that might be useful. We could use the tour to generate some interest in this instrument.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Faster, who was in favor of anything that could end up making Vanessa, his client, more money, for he would share in her good fortune.

“Then let’s plan on it,” she said, rising. “I want to find out everything he played that night, the night he shot himself.”

“Good God, why?” Faster asked.

“Because I think it would make for a very special first concert on this instrument,” she said, running her fingers lightly over the side of the forte-piano. “Think of the interest we could generate. And the myths we could put to rest.”

The promotional possibilities began to percolate in Faster’s agile brain. “Not a bad idea, Vanessa,” he approved. “Not a bad idea at all.”

* * *

Nicola van der Beck looked up from the stacks of books on her cluttered desk and managed a vulpine smile, the lines in her face punctuating her look of eager predation. She held up an old journal as if offering a jewel to Vanessa. “It took some doing,” she said proudly, “but I finally found a full account in this. The Baron Gewaltheit. A dreadful name, isn’t it? There were so many of those petty nobles back then, full of their own inconsequence. The Baron and his Baroness were at the concert, and he recorded the program in detail. At least, that is what he purports to do. I can’t find any confirmation that he actually attended the concert. He may have been in the billiard room, and filled in the story later, from what the other guests told him. Still, he was at Lowenhoff—that much is certain.” She adjusted her bifocals so that she could read the text, and began to translate.

We, along with nearly all the Graf’s guests, entered the ballroom which was set for a concert with chairs in rows under the chandeliers, the elevated musicians’ platform occupied by the forte-piano alone. There was much excitement, for everyone had heard the rumors about Dziwny and the Graffin, which might or might not be true. Both the composer and the Graffin behaved impeccably. You could also say sinlessly here. Still, there can be no doubt that Dziwny has dedicated a number of his recent works to the Graffin, and she has been moved by them. The Graf has been losing patience with this state of affairs—the pun only works in English, of course—and he’s announced that he intends to be rid of Dziwny after the first of the year. He would dismiss him sooner but it would be difficult to find other musicians of high quality to engage so near the holidays, and there are many festivities scheduled to be held here. Also, of course, with his interesting reputation, Stasio Dziwny is still a composer who attracts a great deal of attention, all of it adding to the consequence of his patron, which the Graf von Firstengipfel would be reluctant to give up.

“That’s fascinating, of course,” said Vanessa, not entirely candidly. “But the actual program is where my interest lies.”

Nicola pretended to be slighted. “Oh, well, if that’s all—” She sniffed as she scanned down the page, and turned it. “Ah. Here we go. Six Fugues on Themes of Handel. That’s Dziwny’s own composition, as you know.”

“As I know,” Vanessa echoed, the complex passages coming to mind. Her fingers twitched as if sketching out the cadenzas.

“Then Nursery Songs. That’s by a student of Boccherini, according to the material here. It’s a flashy piece but essentially trivial; hardly anyone plays it anymore, but it has a certain appeal, with all kinds of ornaments and runs, just the sort of thing Dziwny was said to do better than any of his contemporaries, like his knack for fugues,” said Nicola.

“Knack?” Vanessa repeated.

“Oh, yes, I think so,” said Nicola. “He had the mental facility for them, they were his means to an end, not the end itself, a kind of magic trick that caught the attention of the public.” She looked down at the page again. “Anyway, there was an intermission; they served lemon ices and champagne. Then the Grand Toccata and Fugue on a Polish Folk Song, his newest work. He’d played it in public only twice before. He never finished that performance.”

“Is there anything in that journal that says when he actually did it? And what he actually did?” Vanessa could not keep the eagerness out of her voice.

“Yes,” said Nicola. “There is some mention of it.” Her frown became a scowl as she read the journal, translating as she went.

He had reached the second full statement of the central theme, a passage with a great deal of octave work in it, and when he got to the long fermata, followed by the repeated figure in the left hand, his right went into the pocket of his coat, and he drew out a small pistol. He put it under his right ear, and before anyone could properly discern his intent or move to stop him, he fired. He fell sideways, his head striking the keyboard, then there was consternation everywhere. The Graffin fainted and had to be taken from the ballroom by the Graf, who ordered that the room be vacated at once. It was an appalling incident, no matter what the reason may actually have been; with such a tragedy, the world will assume the worst, and will no doubt fix the blame on the Graffin. The servants were charged with the task of disposing of the body. Or reposing the body. Some of these verbs are pretty irregular, even for early nineteenth-century German. It seems to say, There was anxiety or perhaps, All felt anxiety because of this calamity.

Nicola put the journal down. “The rest is about the inconvenience of having to leave the next morning just as it was coming on to snow.”

“That’s pretty dispassionate,” said Vanessa.

“Well, the Baron was said to be a cool one. Still, watching a man blow his brains out can’t have been good entertainment, can it?” Nicola closed the journal. “I think he probably heard the event described, just because of the tone of it. His wife was most certainly in attendance, and she would have told everything to her husband; we know she accompanied the Graffin to her room and stayed with her for the whole night—she wrote a letter to the Graffin’s brother about the event, but put her emphasis on the Graffin, not on Dziwny.”

“Have you seen that letter?” Vanessa asked.

“Yes. It’s in a private collection in Salzburg. The owner allowed me to read it and copy down its text.” Nicola smiled faintly. “Would you like me to read it? I’m afraid the Baroness didn’t write very well, more like a third-grader than an adult—hardly surprising, given the state of women’s education at the time.” She reached out for the handle of the tallest file cabinet in the room.

“Never mind,” said Vanessa. “I get the picture.”

“It’s not a very pretty one,” said Nicola. “If you change your mind, I can make a translation and fax it to you while you’re on the road.”

“Thanks,” said Vanessa. “I’d appreciate that. I’ll put Howard on it, too. He’s the one pushing to tie in the suicide with the concert I’m preparing.”

“Are you actually going to buy the forte-piano?” Nicola asked.

“I wish. Shotwell’s asking a horrendous sum for it; I can’t justify spending that amount.” Vanessa shook her head. “No, I’m leasing it from him, for a pretty ridiculous fee, but at least I can almost afford it.”

Nicola shook her head in disapproval. “Do you really plan to perform the same program Dziwny did?”

“Yes,” said Vanessa mischievously. “It’s quite a hook, don’t you think? I hope it makes for more money, given what I’ve had to lay out in leasing fees.”

“It’ll bring the critics out in droves,” said Nicola in a disapproving way.

“That’s the general idea.” Vanessa came around the desk to give Nicola a peck on the cheek. “Thanks for this. You’ve been wonderful.”

“If you say so,” Nicola remarked unconcernedly.

“I’ll make sure you have a ticket to the first performance,” Vanessa promised as she started out the door.

“Perish the thought,” said Nicola as a parting shot.

* * *

“Look at this!” Howard Faster exclaimed jubilantly as he hurried in from his lunch, the hotel door banging with the force of his entrance. “Mickey Resselot just brought them over.” He thrust half-a-dozen newspaper clippings toward Vanessa. “And there’s more coming.”

“Fine,” said Vanessa distractedly as she continued to study the score in her hands. “I’ll look at them later.”

“You’ve never had press like this!” he crowed, ignoring her preoccupation and putting the clippings down on the round table by the window. “Chicago! Cleveland! New York! Minneapolis! L.A.!”

“And the concert is scheduled for Seattle,” said Vanessa with a slight smile. “Do you think they’ll all send someone to cover the concert? I doubt it. This is just the sensation of the week, something to talk about.”

“So long as they do talk about it—in advance, yet—I don’t care if they cover the event or not,” said Faster, adding with a smirk, “There’s more: PBS may want to tape the concert if this keeps up.”

“Isn’t that aiming a bit high?” Vanessa asked, putting the score aside with a suggestion of exasperation. “I can’t concentrate with you bouncing off the walls.”

“Of course it is! We should be aiming high, with all this lift! Besides, I’ve had feelers already, and that means someone there is thinking about it; I’m just following up. You know, I think I’m going to see if A&E wants to put in a competing bid. If nothing else, that should add to the excitement.” He gathered up the clippings again. “You could finally get the break you’ve been working for!”

“On a gimmick,” said Vanessa.

“Not a gimmick, on a hook. A hook, Vanessa. There’s a big difference.” He took one of the three chairs in the small parlor of her suite and pulled it up to the table. “You can get attention because of the history of the forte-piano, but if you can’t deliver the music, it’s nothing but a flash in the pan.”

“Too bad Dziwny didn’t have a flash in the pan, literally: if only his pistol had misfired,” said Vanessa. “Thirty-six, and just beginning to hit his stride. He could have done some wonderful things if he’d lived. Think of the waste.”

“You can say the same of Mozart, or Bellini,” said Faster.

“They died of natural causes, albeit prematurely, and Mozart had a long career, longer than many others, because he started so young.” Vanessa picked up the score again. “Dziwny was just finding his way, getting his composition feet under him.”

“Is it true his name means strange?” Faster asked.

“Or wonderful,” said Vanessa. “They made a great deal over the significance at the time.”

Faster considered this. “I think I’ll mention that in the next press kit. It could give us a little mileage now, too.”

Vanessa shrugged. “Do we need to clutch at straws that way?”

“No, we don’t, and we’re not,” said Faster. “But it’s an interesting historical note, and that makes it worthwhile.”

“If you think it’s important—it doesn’t seem that way to me,” she told him while she made a point of giving her attention to the score. “This transition from B-flat to G-minor is sneakier than it looks. You can say it’s obvious, but there’s a ninth in the arpeggio that makes all the difference.”

Faster gave up. “Okay, Vanessa. Okay. I won’t take up any more of your time. It’s about time for lunch and getting ready. You have to be ready to leave for the concert hall at seven-thirty, remember, and the Toronto Star is sending a reporter over at four this afternoon; you can’t afford to be in the bath.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Vanessa, not entirely truthfully.

“And after the concert, we’ll have a late supper and you can have a look at what they’re saying about the Dziwny forte-piano, and your concert.” He gathered up his material and started toward the door. “You got to make the most of this, Vanessa. You’re not going to have another chance like this, and you know it. I’m your manager. I’m not steering you wrong on this. You have a real chance here, and you need to make the most of it.”

“Yes. I know,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Faster in affectionate exasperation.

But Vanessa responded seriously. “I want to do this right,” she said, her feelings burning like a banked furnace. “I know it’s a big opportunity, and I don’t want to blow it. I have to be true to Dziwny and his music. And that means preparation.”

“You mean getting lost in it,” Faster corrected her.

“You may think that if you like,” she said with an assumed coolness that fooled neither of them.

“Okay,” said Faster. “Have it your way.”

* * *

The Dziwny forte-piano had been restrung and carefully tuned; it sat in the center of Vanessa’s practice studio behind her house, smaller than her Baldwin concert grand, but more intriguing. She approached it carefully, wanting to get to know it well. Its tone was soft, almost liquid, and it responded to Vanessa’s expert touch with sweetness and clarity. She practiced diligently, keeping her attention focused on the sound the instrument produced. As much as she wanted to be subsumed in Dziwny’s music, she had to give more notice to the character of the forte-piano, to learn its strengths and weaknesses so that she could show off its range when she finally performed publicly on it. The bass was more vibrant than in many forte-pianos, and she began to use the low notes to support the upper melody in a more deliberately contrapuntal manner than she had done at first. Suddenly she felt the piece begin to open up to her—the instrument revealed more of the composer’s intent than she had thought possible. The Handel variations went on from a playful scherzo fugue, the theme in the mid-range of the instrument, into a rocking, six/eight lullaby, left hand echoing the right in melting, lyrical phrases, each playing with the theme of the fugue until the two melody lines blended into a stirring restatement of the theme. Vanessa could almost smell the hot wax of burning candles and the heavy odor of attar of roses over sweat that must have been present when Dziwny played. Half-closing her eyes, Vanessa imagined the ballroom of Schloss Lowenhoff with its painted wall panels and the small audience in their fancy clothes. The Graffin would be sitting in the front row, the Graf next to her; she would have a shawl around her shoulders, since it was winter and Lowenhoff was draughty. The candles would waver a bit because of that, and that would add to the dramatic impact of the concert. There would be the quiet shuffling of the audience, and the occasional inevitable cough. She went on playing, finishing the last, grandiose fugue with a flourish that was unlike her usual pristine style.

“Very nice,” said Faster from the door behind her.

Vanessa blinked, feeling slightly disoriented, and coughed to cover her confusion. “How does it sound?”

“It has a pretty big voice for a forte-piano,” said Faster. “And a lot more complexity than I’ve heard before.” He cocked his head speculatively. “Have you thought about where it would be best to record the CD? I think a live hall would be better than a studio. More ambient sound, don’t you think?”

“It’s possible,” she said, suddenly as tired as if she had been playing for twice as long as she had been.

“How’s the program going?” Faster asked.

“I haven’t run through the whole thing yet,” she said. “I need a little more time with the instrument before I can figure out how to pace myself through the pieces.” It was an excuse, she realized as she said it.

“Is this going to be a problem?” asked Faster, looking a bit worried.

“Oh, no,” she said, a trifle too quickly. “It just takes familiarity with the works. This isn’t like programs we do now, and I have to accommodate the difference.”

“How do you mean?” Faster sounded dubious.

“Well, if this program were being performed now, it would probably be the Nursery Songs first, then the Grand Toccata and Fugue, and then the Six Fugues on Themes of Handel, because it demands the greatest virtuosity, and the work is the most musically interesting as well as technically challenging. Fugues Five and Six in particular, are real showpieces, meant to impress the audience.”

“Then why did Dziwny perform the works in the order he did? Does anyone know?”

“Well, the style of concerts was different then, and the Grand Toccata and Fugue was newer; most of the audience hadn’t heard it before, so it made for a greater finish then than it would today,” said Vanessa, adding a bit more awkwardly, “also, assuming Dziwny intended to kill himself, he wanted a work that gave him the opportunity, and it exists in the fermata, and the long thematic statement in the left hand. He had almost forty seconds to draw his pistol, aim, and shoot.”

“So you think he planned the program around his suicide?” Faster looked a bit disgusted.

“It certainly seems to be the case,” said Vanessa, her face showing no trace of emotion. “I don’t know when he decided to kill himself, but he planned the concert at least a week before playing it.”

“Ye gods,” said Faster. “What a plan to carry around with you for a week. I would have thought he did it on the spur of the moment, something impetuous, but you think he could have set it up well in advance.”

“It’s possible,” said Vanessa, getting up from the fortepiano. “I need a break. Come with me. I’ll put water on.”

“Or open a bottle?” Faster asked. “Some of that Pinot Grigio?”

“Sure,” said Vanessa as she coded the alarm and opened the door. “Thirty seconds to get out.”

“Coming,” said Faster, moving past her with a wink. “You take good care of that.” He waited while she locked the door; following her across the small, green yard to the rear door of her house, he pondered how to bring up the most recent request he had received about the Dziwny forte-piano.

“Well, I can’t afford to have anything happen to it, can I?” she asked as she went ahead of him toward the house.

There was a mud-room that was mostly used for garden storage just inside the back door, and a good-sized pantry, then the handsomely remodeled modern kitchen with its island range on the central diagonal of the room, and double ovens against the wall. At the end of the island was a bar, three stools in place for informal dining, and Vanessa motioned to one of these. “Sit. I’ll get the wine as soon as the kettle’s on; I’ll be right back.” She grabbed the kettle and filled it at the sink, then set it on one of the six gas burners and lit it. For a long moment she stared at the yellow-tipped blue flames.

“Something wrong?” Faster inquired.

Vanessa shook her head. “No. No, I’m just tired.” She bustled out of the room and returned with a bottle, two stemmed glasses, and a corkscrew, all of which she thrust at Faster. “Here.”

He took them all and set about opening the bottle. “I had a call from Shotwell today.”

“Not more money,” Vanessa said at once. “Until I start getting receipts from concerts, I’m on a budget.”

“No, not more money.” He pulled out the cork and sniffed it, then poured wine into the two glasses. “Someone’s approached him about the forte-piano.”

“Oh, God,” she exclaimed, her heart sinking, “He’s had an offer to buy it.”

“No,” Faster assured her. “Nothing like that. A parapsychologist wants to run some tests on it.”

“A what?” She stopped in the act of taking down her favorite teapot.

“Parapsychologist. He’s supposed to have a pretty good reputation for psychometry.” He held one of the wine glasses out to her, feeling abashed.

“And Shotwell’s interested?” Vanessa was incredulous. She took the glass, but paid no attention to it.

“Apparently,” Faster said drily. “He’s accepted a hefty fee from the guy.”

“I’m surprised Shotwell didn’t try to find a psychic,” said Vanessa nastily.

“Now, now,” Faster warned her as he lifted his glass.

“Well, it smacks of the worst kind of sleaze, if you ask me.” She hurriedly turned off the flame under the shrieking kettle. “Sorry. I’m jumpy.”

“Rehearsal nerves,” said Faster at his most understanding.

“I guess,” Vanessa said without much conviction. In order to change this uncomfortable subject, she asked, “So who is this parapsychologist and what is he looking for in the Dziwny forte-piano? If it is a he?”

“Yes, a he. Doctor Christopher Warren.” He waited for her to say something, then went on. “He’s actually pretty well-known, and his work is taken seriously. He’s got a couple books out, and he’s on the lecture circuit.”

“Doing what? Psychometry?” She drank a little of the wine and then poured some of the hot water into the teapot to heat it. “I’m sorry. That was bitchy.”

“No problem. You’ve had a hard day. You’re allowed to blow off a little steam.” He watched her while she got down the canister of tea. “Do you think you could use a day off?”

“No,” she said. “Why?”

Faster shrugged. “I just thought it might be easier to let Warren do whatever it is he intends to do while you’re out, is all.”

“You might be right about that,” she said after a moment. “But I think I should stay around. I’m responsible for the instrument, and who knows what Doctor Warren might do if he’s left to his own devices.”

“Okay. I’ll let Shotwell know and we’ll set the tests up,” said Faster. “How soon would you like it?”

“I don’t like it at all,” said Vanessa. “But do as you think best.” She went to empty the water from her teapot, then set the kettle boiling again as she loaded in two measures of Dragonwell leaves. “Just give me a couple days’ warning.”

“Will do,” Faster promised, pledging with his glass to make his point as emphatically as he could.

* * *

Cummings Hall was small enough to be called “intimate” by critics, seating five hundred twenty-four, all with clear sight of the stage. The Dziwny forte-piano had been put on the broad apron, and the tuner was finishing up his work as Vanessa arrived to practice.

“Looks good,” said the tuner, removing his damping felts and giving the keys a cursory run. “Sounds good, too.”

“You’ll be staying here, to retune?” Vanessa asked.

“That’s the deal,” said the tuner. “I’ll be in the house-manager’s office, if you need me. I want to catch the game, if I can, while I have my lunch.” He strolled away, his attention no longer on the instrument.

Vanessa went over to the forte-piano and sat down, remaining still for a short while, letting the place and its ambience sink into her. She frowned as she thought about Professor Warren, who would arrive in an hour. The last thing she wanted was a publicity-seeking loony poking around the forte-piano, but Shotwell had agreed, so she had to make the best of it. Flexing her hands, she began a few Czerny exercises, her fingers moving automatically with the familiar cadences. Satisfied, she took a little time to collect her thoughts, and then began to play. The Six Fugues on Themes of Handel flowed more easily than she would have supposed. Fugues One and Two came and went, and Three began with a simple theme in G-minor, and Vanessa let the music carry her. The hall whispered, and the forte-piano rang, a thrilling sound that seemed to fill the space.

By the Fourth fugue, she was wonderfully lost in the music, apprehending Dziwny’s vision so completely that she was no longer aware of Cummings Hall, but felt as if she were at Lowenhoff, all those decades ago, caught up in a passion that had no place to go but into the notes being played. The fugue unwound elegantly, the melody moving from bass to treble, then flitted through the mid-range only to emerge in the treble again in a dazzling display of talent and training. Starting the Fifth fugue, Vanessa was unaware that she was being watched. Her hands played as if the movements were a martial art and she their greatest exponent. The sound came out flawlessly, the repeated musical images piled one atop another into an astonishing edifice of patterned tones. Without pause, she launched into the Sixth fugue, playing brilliantly until she suddenly stopped in the middle of a thematic statement, as if she had lost track of the music.

Trembling, she moved back on the bench and sat there, dazed and breathing hard. Her face was pale. She began to rub her palms on her skirt, nervously blinking as if she had finally become aware of her surroundings. Abruptly, she stood up and walked a half-dozen steps away from the instrument.

“Why did you stop?” asked an unknown voice from the middle of the empty hall.

Surprised, Vanessa looked up. “Who’s there?” she demanded sharply.

“Christopher Warren. I was told you’d be expecting me,” came the answer.

“Professor Warren,” she said with a hint of distaste. “I didn’t expect you so early.”

“It’s after twelve,” he said, leaving his seat and coming forward.

“I must have lost track of the time,” said Vanessa, only glancing in his direction.

“The way you were playing, I’m not astounded to hear you say so.” He came up to the apron and held up his hand to her. “It’s very impressive.”

“It’s a fine instrument,” said Vanessa, bending down briefly to take his hand. “I should probably get the tuner back here. The pitch is beginning to slip.” She started away from him toward the prompt-side wing.

“Would you rather I go? I have some equipment to bring in, and I don’t want to disturb you.” Warren watched her pause. “It’s no trouble.”

“All right. I’ll just sit down for a bit, get some water.” She resumed walking.

“Why did you stop where you did?” Warren called after her.

Vanessa halted. “Did I stop?” She seemed confused. “I guess it was the pitch going. It felt like I was finished.” Her frown became a glower. “I don’t leave music unfinished.”

“Well, if the pitch wasn’t right,” said Warren as he cut through a row of seats toward the side door that led to the offices of the hall, “I can see how you’d stop.”

Vanessa nodded, but went back to the forte-piano, and, after a long moment, sat down and began the Sixth fugue again, concentrating on the music, doing her best to ignore the slight shift in pitch in the strings. “That’s the trouble,” she said. “It needs tuning.” She continued on through the fugue, paying close attention to its tone and the pacing of the work. As she reached the extended passage for the left hand, she faltered. “Damn,” she said aloud, and began the left-hand passage again, a bit more slowly and deliberately. This time it worked, and she thundered on into the end, careening through the dizzying pyrotechnics with the verve of a race-car driver. “There,” she said as if to confirm her final repeated chords. When she was finished, she was a bit shaky; the beginnings of a headache buzzed behind her eyes and she pinched the bridge of her nose to stop it.

“Brava!” called Warren from the side-door. “That was spectacular.”

“Yeah. But the pitch is off,” said the tuner, who stood beside him. “Still, the playing’s first rate.”

“Thanks,” said Vanessa, moving away from the fortepiano. “The low E is really off.”

“I’ll take care of it,” said the tuner, and brought his small case of tuning forks onto the stage. “Have to do this the old-fashioned way,” he said.

“Good,” said Vanessa, and sought out the soothing darkness of the backstage area. She leaned against the wall and willed herself to relax, which left her jittery. What on earth had happened to her? she asked herself.

“Ms. Hylas, are you okay?” Warren asked her as he rolled a strange-looking, metal box on wheels, ornamented with dials and gauges up next to the stage-manager’s podium.

She made herself straighten up. “Just a bit tired.”

“There’s coffee in the house-manager’s office.” He studied her for a moment, then began setting up his equipment.

“And it’s terrible,” she said, attempting levity. “But it’s hot.” She started toward the door that would lead to the hall to the offices.

“You sure you’re all right?” Warren called after her, his question underscored by the tuner as he started his work.

“Yes, thanks,” she said automatically, and wondered if she dared to eat anything. It might help her feel better, but it could make her feel worse. She was still debating this as she reached the house-manager’s office, where the odor of scorched coffee told her not to have any of it. She went to the drinking fountain and gulped down several mouthfuls, then wandered back toward the stage where the tuner was making progress on the forte-piano and Christopher Warren was busily setting up his display of machines.

“Feeling better?” Warren called out cheerfully. “You look a bit less pasty.”

“Thanks,” she said drily. “Rehearsing can take a lot out of me.”

“If it was just the rehearsing,” he said almost jauntily.

“How do you mean?” Vanessa asked.

“I’ll tell you after I’ve finished monitoring the rest of your rehearsal,” he said, merrily adjusting what appeared to be an oscilloscope.

“All right,” she said, trying not to be too curt with him even though she resented his intrusion on her rehearsal time.

“Just carry on as if I weren’t here,” he encouraged her. “You know how to do it.”

“What makes you think so?” she could not stop herself from challenging.

“Well, you certainly weren’t aware of me when I arrived,” he said blandly, his pleasant face showing no signs of sarcastic intent.

“No, I wasn’t,” she allowed, and listened while the tuner finished his work.

The Nursery Songs went well enough, their fancy ornaments and flourishes sounding impressive, as they were intended to be. When she was finished, she had the tuner come back again, before she started the Grand Toccata and Fugue on a Polish Folk Song. “If it isn’t slipping now, it will be before the piece is done,” she said with a wry smile. She turned to Warren. “Anything so far?”

“I’m not certain,” he said from his place in the first row of the audience where he was staring at the screen of his laptop.

Vanessa paced the apron, reviewing the piece she was about to rehearse in her mind. She paid little attention to her slight light-headedness, attributing it to her skipped lunch. As soon as the tuner relinquished the forte-piano to her, she sat down, ready to begin.

“This is the piece he played when he—?” Warren asked, breaking her concentration.

“Yes. He shot himself three-quarters of the way through the piece,” she said testily. “Anything else, or can I ...” She gestured to the keyboard.

“Go on,” he told her, his whole attention on the screen.

The opening bars of the toccata went well, the pace a confident andante con moto. Vanessa let the steady four/four beat carry her along through the modulation from E-flat to G-flat, and back to E-flat again. She was part of the music now, like a raft on a river, riding the current. Gradually all sense of the hall and the strange monitors around her faded away and she seemed to be in the eerie splendor of Lowenhoff, lit by candles in chandeliers and sconces, with a select group gathered to listen to him play this newest piece he had composed, the piece that was dedicated to Maria-Antonia, Graffin von Firstengipfel, the woman to whom he was utterly devoted, and who could not express her love to him. The stage lights vanished, and the darkened concert hall was gone, and in its place was the ballroom of Lowenhoff, golden and glistening.

The Graf sat bolt upright, listening in growing fury at the scandal this man had brought upon him and his family; Dziwny could see his disapproval in every line of his body. He knew this was the last concert he would ever give under von Firstengipfel’s patronage, but he would not accept the callous dismissal he had been given—that way lay ruin for him and a tarnished reputation for the Graffin. No, he would show the Graf what he thought of his arrogant termination with one far more damaging than anything the Graf had promised. The fugue began simply enough, and he played the octaves with deceptive ease, thinking of the song he had heard so many times in his childhood: Endless Love. The melody, plaintive and sweet, echoed from hand to hand, growing and enlarging in long cantabile passages that led to the astonishing fermata. He laid his left hand on the keys and began to play the long restatement of the fugue’s theme, while he reached for the pocket in his swallow-tail coat.

Fumbling with her skirt on the piano bench, Vanessa was transfixed by Dziwny’s composition. Her face was without expression, and everything but her hands moved like a doll, stiffly and automatically. With a sudden cry of frustration, she rose from the bench, slapped the side of her head and collapsed, falling between the bench and the forte-piano as Warren sat all but mesmerized by what he saw on his screen.

* * *

Faster was on one side of her and Warren on the other when Vanessa finally walked out of Cummings Hall some three hours later. “I still want you to see the doctor tomorrow,” Faster was scolding her. “I can’t have you fainting during a performance.”

“Not to worry,” said Vanessa. She was feeling a bit embarrassed for putting these two men—and the tuner—through an hour of anxiety. “I’ll be fine.”

“I want to be sure of that,” Faster said, then rounded on Warren as they reached the edge of the street. “What were you thinking, putting all that equipment around her? Didn’t it occur to you it might hurt her?”

“How could it?” Warren asked as calmly as he was able.

“I don’t know. It’s your equipment. You should know better than anyone what it’s apt to do.” Faster signaled for his town-car, and kept his hand protectively on Vanessa’s arm.

“I don’t think it was his equipment,” said Vanessa, startling both men. “I think it was the forte-piano.”

The two men stared at her with varying expressions of disbelief. Finally Faster spoke. “You sure you’re okay? That sounds a bit ... nuts.”

“To me, too,” she said, watching as his Lincoln pulled up to the curb. “But it happened before Professor Warren set up his monitors, only not so intensely.”

“What happened?” Faster demanded, his patience finally failing him. “What are you talking about?”

“About the fugues,” she said, and laughed sadly. “It set ... I don’t know ... something off. Something that the forte-piano is part of.” Although Faster opened the door for her, she didn’t get in immediately. “It’s still there, you know. It’s still at Lowenhoff, and it always will be.”

“You mean the instrument?” Warren asked.

“If that’s what it is,” said Vanessa as she allowed Faster to assist her into the town car. She stared straight ahead as Faster got in and they sped away, leaving Warren alone on the sidewalk.

About Fugues

This title refers both to the musical and the psychological form of a fugue, both of which are present in the story.

Forty years ago, I was allowed to play a forte-piano—the immediate ancestor to the modern pianoforte—for the greater part of a month. The experience made the music of Mozart and his contemporaries much more understandable to me, including the on-going effort to keep the strings in tune.

There are many legends and stories about possessed musical instruments, and the belief that musical instruments possess magical powers is nothing new. In the 13th century, a Papal commission was appointed to determine which instruments were holy and which were damnable: those clerics decided that the rebec (ancestor of the violin) was played by the Devil, and the crumhorn (ancestor of the trombone) was holy. Assigning such virtue, or lack of it, to a musical instrument strikes me as chancy, although this forte-piano undoubtedly has an odd kick in its gallop—or perhaps Vanessa has one in hers.

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