The Great Novel Experiment: I publish one chapter a week of my novel, Night Songs, for your enjoyment, entertainment, and critique. This supernatural tale is G – PG rated.
This work is (c) 2018 by Jeanne Grunert. All rights reserved.
Night Songs: Chapter One
The castle brooded on the rim of a black, malodorous pool. Walnut trees heavy with late autumn nuts gathered about the castle, guarding it from curious onlookers. It was a dark, unwelcoming place even now in the light of day.
A cracked fountain stood sentinel in the circular driveway. A statue of the god Dionysus once poured water like wine from a stone vessel. Now his hands were empty, the vessel long since crumbled into sand.
Inside the castle, the owner brooded.
He peered beyond the thick velvet drapes to the crushed gravel driveway beyond. A small rental car pulled up and a young, thin man with long hair pulled into a ponytail unfolded his legs from behind the steering column.
So this was the musicologist, the historian from Raphael’s Music School in New York City come to examine the Rhambacher and evaluate it for the Museum of Art. If all went well, the piano would be sold, the castle could be renovated, and the owner could breathe relief from both natural and supernatural worries.
Behind the castle’s owner, one note sounded on the heavy grand piano in the library.
“Yes, yes,” the owner murmured. “I know. It is time.”
Two weeks later
“Dave?” Micky paused. “David Zardon?”
The tall, thin man whirled around, his tie askew. “It is you!” Micky cried. She threw her arms around his bony shoulders. “Dave, it’s Micky, Micky Zimmerman. Don’t you recognize me?”
“Zimmerman,” she insisted.
He squinted at her. Then, he opened his eyes wide and exclaimed, “Mickey! Yes! You helped me pass AP Calculus!”
“And you helped me pass Music Theory,” she laughed. “It’s so good to see you again. How could we have lost touch?”
“Floral Park is a special place,” Dave smiled. “You make friends for life. You never forget your Floral Park friends.” The reception hall swelled with noise, a crescendo of laughter and champagne glasses clinking. Waiters in full tie and tails wove through the guests bearing trays of tiny appetizers and drinks. Most of the drink trays emptied quickly.
“Mickey, I’m happy to see you again, but why are you here?” He glanced at her. “You don’t work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s PR department, do you? I remember you were always interested in journalism.”
“No, I’m working for the New York News now. I write features for their Sunday magazine. They sent me to cover the unveiling of the Rhambacher and the first concert on the instrument in over 150 years. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking of it. Did Franz Lizt actually play the Rhambacher?”
“One of them,” Dave said. “There were three built between 1820-1850. One was destroyed in Berlin in World War II; the second was at Peterhof, the great Russian palace of Peter the Great, but the Germans stole it in 1941 when they occupied Leningrad and it hasn’t been seen since. This Rhambacher – ” he pointed to the front of the recital hall where on stage a gigantic, shrouded form hulked and brooded – “Is the only one known to exist, in its entirety.”
“Wow,” Mickey’s eyes sparkled. “This is going to be a great story. You’re not the old garage band kid I remember from high school dreaming of being in a rock band. You really know your stuff.”
Dave had to move aside for a prominent Broadway actress to push her way to the entrance hall where she air-kissed the cheeks of a director. It was like a who’s who of New York society packed into the recital hall. Dave scanned the crowd.
“Looking for someone?”
His intent gaze softened into a smile as a gazelle-like woman with cascades of dark hair swept through the crowd. They parted before her as she made her way directly towards them. “Yes, my fiance, Jasmine Lord.”
“Jasmine…Lord?” Mickey managed to keep her voice from catching with excitement. “Oh my goodness. Hello, Miss Lord.”
“And you are?” The goddess smiled down from her nearly six-foot height at Mickey.
“Jas, this is an old high school friend of mine, Mickey Zimmerman. Mickey, my fiance, Jasmine Lord.”
“You may not be playing Led Zeppelin in Jimmy’s basement anymore, but you’ve still got the rock and roll ethic, Dave Zardon,” Mickey said. “Engaged to a super model? Where did you guys meet?”
He shrugged and slipped his arm through Jas’. “Here. Jas does some public relations work for Raphael’s Music School.”
“I’m leaving modeling, you know,” Jasmine Lord purred in a voice once described by a movie critic as whiskey-smooth. “Dave, before I forget, Doc needs a translator right away. We have that horrible Spanish guitarist on the phone for next month’s concert and Doc can’t make heads nor tails of what he’s asking. He needs you to translate.”
“Now? In the middle of the event?”
She smiled ruefully. “I’m afraid so. Sorry, Mickey, but I’ve got to steal away our beloved Dr. Zardon.”
“It’s fine,” Mickey said. “Hey, Dave, would you mind if we got together tomorrow, after the event tonight, for a real interview? I read the press release -” she nodded towards Jasmine “- and it said you were the one who found the Rhambacher and authenticated it. I’d love to get your story for the piece I’m writing for the News”
“You’re a journalist?”
“Feature reporter, New York News.”
“And you met my fiancé where?”
Mickey frowned; was that jealousy in Jasmine’s purring voice. No, there was no way the globe-trotting, magazine-cover star Jasmine Lord was jealous of her. “High school. We grew up together, in Floral Park.”
“Ah, yes, that quaint little village on Long Island.”
“Listen, Mickey,” Jasmine said, detaching her arm from Dave’s as he hurried off to handle the phone call. “There’s a fortunate in interviews here. Let me introduce you around.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that,” Mickey said as Jasmine deftly guided her towards the Broadway actress and director who were engaged in heavy flirting near the bar. “But I’m here to cover the Rhambacher concert. Is it really as beautiful as the reports say it is?”
“That, and more.” Jasmine seemed to relax as her gaze flicked to the shrouded instrument on the recital hall stage. Technicians in Raphaels’ blue uniform checked the sound and lights, and overhead, someone flicked the lights in the concert hall signal to take your seats now and be quiet please.
A man wearing a xylophone around his neck tapped out three notes which sounded like the call for NBC television. “Ten minutes to performance. Ten minutes,” he called in a flat monotone while circulating among the guests.
“It’s not just the beauty of the case, although that, as you probably saw from the pictures circulated with the press release, the case is exquisite,” Jasmine said. “The instrument’s tone, the depth of the base…well Dave can explain it all better than I can. You’ll hear it in a few minutes.”
“Surely if the instrument is this rare and beautiful, the family who owned it would want it played more often. I read that it was found in a castle in Romania?”
“Yes,” Jas said. “It is Rhambacher number three. We’ve confirmed it by the markings under the case lid. Each Rhambacher was numbered with a special code, and the records survived World War II. They are in the Bodlein Library at Oxford. We know that this is the third and last Rhambacher produced.”
“The cursed Rhambacher.”
Jasmine threw back her mane of hair and laughed, flashing her perfect white smile. “Oh, hardly. It’s a piano.”
“Yes this one has a history,” Mickey insisted, following Jasmine to their seats near the front of the recital hall. The lights flashed a third time and the guests ditched half-empty glasses of champaign and napkins on every available waiter’s tray. The curtains across the recital stage closed slowly, blocking the view of the piano. The house lights dimmed.
Jas glanced to her right and frowned at the empty seat. “Dave’s going to miss this.”
They settled into the comfortable seats while the house lights went down and the audience clapped heartily. Dr. Halloway, the president of Raphael’s Music School, and Thaddeus Kowalski, Director of Acquisitions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, stepped from the wings and paused at the microphone at the center of the stage.
“Thank you, thank you!” Halloway boomed into the microphone. The audience clapped vigorously.
To their right, Dave slid into the seat. Jasmine leaned over and whispered to him; he nodded. Mickey caught his eye and he smiled in the dusky gloom of the recital hall, the same warm smile she remembered from high school.
“Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests, on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Raphael’s Music School of New York City, welcome to the official first concert of the last remaining Rhambacher piano in the world. Once commissioned for an owned by Count Lepinski of Romania, this particular instrument has been in the possession of the Lepinski family for generations. Hidden away in the mountains of Romania, it has remained unheard for many years.
“You have, perhaps, read of the so-called Rhambacher curse; that all of the instruments were cursed by a workman in the Rhambacher shop who had made a pact with the devil. We will let you decide, ladies and gentlemen, if an instrument this lovely, this exquisite, can be cursed.”
Dr. Halloway stepped aside to let Mr. Kowalski speak. He gave an eloquent speech about the importance of conservation and preservation of the world’s treasures, especially instruments such as the Rhambacher, and ended with a pitch – as Mickey suspected he would – for supporting the Museum with a pledge. Discrete envelopes were passed around like a church fundraiser with the guests invited to make their pledge to the museum now.
At least, Mickey thought as she stuffed the envelope into her purse, Halloway didn’t ask for donations to the school.
More speeches, more applause, and then the guest pianist, Catherine Majek, was introduced. The curtains drew back from the stage and the audience gasped. Under the spotlight, the Rhambacher glowed under amber spots. The grand piano seemed to pick up the lights of the stage and magnify them from its polished, carved surface where ivy curled around strange faces carved into the legs. Glittering rubies glowed from the eyes of the creatures’ faces. Mickey shuddered.
Catherine Majek swept towards the instrument, her titian hair drawn back from a perfect ivory face. She arranged her dark blue skirts and stepped a dainty sandal-clad foot towards the pedals. Her hands arched over the keyboard; and then the music began.
Softly, the strains of Beethoven’s famous Patethique sonata flowed over the audience. The richness, the tone swept through Mickey as if the pianist and instrument ensorcelled the audience. The sound flowed like liquid sweetness through the air towards the audience touched with a darkness that balanced the sweetness so that it was not cloying but rich, the cry of a brokenhearted maiden in a dark tower with a cracked fountain…
Cracked fountain? Mickey’s eyes fluttered open. She hadn’t realized she had been closing her eyes, lulled into mind pictures by the music. She had seen a cracked fountain, a statue of Pan, a looming castle, dark trees. As soon as she opened her eyes, however, she was back in the concert hall seated next to Jasmine Lord, listening to a history-making performance.
Suddenly above the glorious music, a woman screamed.
Thank you for reading Night Songs, a new novel by Jeanne Grunert
Feel free to share the link with your friends. Check back every Sunday night at midnight for the next installment. The full book will be published on Amazon. Leave comments and questions below.
Night Songs (c) Copyright 2018 by Jeanne Grunert. All rights reserved.