the eighty-eighth key
Imogen Schwarzwald grew up in a room filled with the sunny warmth of late spring mornings, even though the world she looked over was decidedly mercantilist. When she was just old enough to take a peek and see this world for herself, she would push a little step-stool to the window and climb-up onto the ornate sill and look out the room’s large window – over a sea of red tile rooftops to one of Copenhagen’s commercial waterfronts. The masts of a few large sailing vessels were still visible in those days, though steamships had by the early 1920s replaced most of them, yet these wharves in the 1920s were nevertheless hives of bustling activity. Of more import to Imogen’s story, a music conservatory was located just behind the Schwarzwald residence. So, consider her mercantilist view of the world was often framed by mesmerizing orchestral works, and as such her worldview developed within this contrapuntal sonata.
And it did not hinder matters that her mother was a pianist, not to mention a composer of some modest repute, so Imogen’s early weltanschauung was well-informed by an atmosphere of early musical training, not to mention broad musical accomplishment. Perhaps this never-ending cascade of sight and sound contributed too much to her development, but that’s something we’d hardly be in a position to know from our vantage point, but consider how the frenetic music of commercial activity stood beside the measured cadence of Bach day in and day out before you draw your own conclusions.
Yet of equal, and perhaps of even greater importance, Imogen’s earliest artistic nature stood in stark relief to her father’s.
Aaron Schwarzwald had been a physician all his working life, and though originally trained as a surgeon, an accident and brutal injury left him little recourse but to pursue a career in psychiatry in later life. Confined to a wheelchair and always in great pain, he’d spent a good deal of time with Imogen when she was a child, and had taught her all that he could – which was indeed a magnificent bestowal by any measure.
So imagine if you will a seven year old girl who by that tender age was very nearly fluent in the languages of Beethoven and Einstein and who, on the occasion of her seventh birthday presented her first composition, a modest piano concerto, at the music conservatory behind her father’s house. Her work was at the time hailed as the product of an uncompromising genius, and she remembered an old man in a cape that night – and for many years thereafter – who told her that she was destined to enjoy a glorious career in music.
Which, curiously enough, impressed Imogen Schwarzwald not at all.
Because already her life was caught between two opposing tides – the artist’s more decadent world of light and shadow and, because of her father’s tireless influence, the unyielding precision of scientific hypothesis and experimentation – yet in the end she was her father’s daughter most of all. His settled view of the world, patient and methodical in the extreme, proved a more comfortable fit to the young girl…much more so than the often dilettantish phantasmagoria of Copenhagen’s fin-de-siècle haute bourgeoisie.
But there is an uneasy cohesion between the water’s ebb and flow, isn’t there; surely one cannot have one influence without the other?
Imogen was born the year after the first Great War began to slowly fade from view, and so it came to pass that she developed within one of the most potent eras of intellectual achievement the world has ever known. And though you may not know this, Copenhagen was one of the most important – no, vital centers of academic free-expression in the world – and further, consider that by the 20s Copenhagen was a city in very good company indeed. London and Berlin, perhaps, were more advanced centers of scientific investigation at the beginning of this period, Vienna and Paris perhaps so as well, and of course those in America would be nominating Boston’s inclusion on such a list, yet the point to be made here is a far simpler one: Copenhagen was a center of academic research second to none and, during the first thirty-three years of the new century, research into the nature of the subatomic world blossomed here.
And it was to this other world that Imogen Schwarzwald belonged most of all.
The birth of the scientific worldview that came to dominate the twentieth-century coincided with a brief, last flourishing of Jewish culture in Europe, and more than a few historians have gone so far as to claim that, rather like the tides, one simply could not have existed without the other. Steeped as it was in the religious constructs of the Old Testament, this community had long valued the cohesive spiritual needs of family and community like few before and, perhaps, this cohesiveness grew into, over time, a fount of virulent resentment – but such statements are rife with stupefying, even offensive oversimplification. And let us just add that by the 1920s anti-semitism was, and not for the first time, growing into a divisive populist force within European culture and politics, so let us resolve here and now to accept European anti-semitism as fact and simply leave it at that. What good does it do to dwell too long in the darkness?
If your eyes are not yet accustomed to such darkness, perhaps you might understand that this anti-semitism was hardly a salient part of young Imogen Schwarzwald’s life, because in Denmark such hateful things tended to happen elsewhere, in cities such as London and Berlin, Vienna and Paris, and yes, even in such egalitarian ‘cities on a hill’ as Boston. Even so, by the time Imogen was thirteen years old, the darker undercurrents of this resurgent illiberal virus were once again surging into view. Standing around the precipitous well of the past as we are now in the early years of the twenty-first century, peering yet again into such darkness is not so easily imagined, yet it was certainly even less so for a young girl who had grown up assiduously protected from such things.
But please, do keep in mind that as you fall into the well, as your mind struggles to adapt to the darkness as you fall, you may very well see flickers of light as time passes, yet it is best to understand that people see what they want to see even as they fall, and that there is no light at the bottom of the well save what you carried with you on your way through the depths.
The Arts, or more broadly speaking painting, music and, perhaps not so sadly, literature, have come to represent to many people a peculiar form of decadence commonly associated with a pervasive loosening of social mores. Think Caligula and pre-Christian pole-dancing during the waning days of the Roman Empire and you’d not be too far off the mark, but recall that the Arts have been well represented through time by people of all creeds and ‘races,’ and that ultra-conservative fascists of the 1920s and 30s, in Russia, Germany and elsewhere, tended to view most artists with more than a little suspicion. And consider this as well: for these leaders Art was either something that could be harnessed and used to advance the objectives of the state…or it was problematically much more subversive to the aims of the state and had to be pushed aside.
And you might ask why? Why…the need to be crush Art? What is it about a painting or a piece of music that can be so overwhelmingly subversive that the full power of the state is required to weaken its influence…?
Perhaps in different times and space other little girls have experienced the same forces, if only from slightly different perspectives.
Take, for instance, a little girl in South Vietnam. A girl we’ve come to know as An Linh, and to most who’d known her she was indeed a Peaceful Soul – though to many men, to the soldiers and reporters who frequented the Caravelle Hotel’s bar, she was and always would be known simply as Cat. An Linh, like all the others in her family, lived in the shadow of her father’s career working for the French legation in Saigon, so when the war for reunification began in the early 1950s, such ‘collaborators’ were among the first targeted. An Linh, if nothing but a Peaceful Soul, soon found herself all alone in the world and growing up in a series of Catholic ‘homes for unwanted children.’ Turned-out on the street just after her fourteenth birthday, An Linh possessed a basic education – she could read and write French and, to a degree, Vietnamese. Yet there had always been those around her, even in those impressionable days before the Americans came, who had convinced An Linh that her greatest attribute was her astonishing physical beauty. Any number of men, mainly older men from France but other round eyes from Europe too, engaged An Linh’s services as a model when an agency signed her, and for a few years she made enough to get by, though nothing more. Yet consider this: for a teenager this degree of self-sufficiency was intoxicating, and it forever colored An Linh’s worldview.
Even so, An Linh remained a curious creature of South Vietnam’s hazy gray shadowlands. Many orphans were branded – some with justification, depending on your point of view – as the children of collaborators. Not a daft girl, she remained an elusive, fearful soul, never living in one place for long and growing justifiably suspicious when strangers asked about her whereabouts. Her modeling assignments became less frequent as a result, her economic self sufficiency much less resilient – yet what she still possessed she could deploy with great skill.
So, An Linh became, for a time, the type of model most often seen in less reputable magazines – if that turn of phrase suits your world view more comfortably. At first, and for much less money, she appeared in glossy pictorials that featured lots of slinky underwear, and little else. Soon enough, though for more money, such clothing disappeared. Within a few months she found her prospects taking off, literally, when she agreed to take off all her clothing in front of a motion picture camera. Then, inevitably, she was asked to ‘perform’ with another man, and it all came so easily after that. One man, then two or three, then a man and a woman…until the only thing left was two women, or sometimes more.
And she became self-sufficient once again, and for a time, even prosperous. But this is an old story, isn’t it? Just one more torch-lit mirrored-hall we see in the darkness as we fall, because you’ll always find such places in the well of the past.
Imogen Schwarzwald began university soon after her fifteenth birthday. She was, as we’ve mentioned, already considered a prodigy in music, but we should mention also in mathematics, though by the time she entered university, music had all but disappeared from her life – yet this drift away from music might be seen as, perhaps, the oddest part of her story.
She was ten when this change came about. An age when life still presents little mysteries from time-to-time, before we finally grow jaded and unimpressed by such things as ghosts and goblins and circus clowns. She was with her father for two weeks that summer, down at their little seaside cottage on the island of Ærø. There were vast strands of white, sandy beaches on the island, and cool ocean breezes blew in off the sea almost every afternoon, yet what most impressed ten-year-old Imogen was the variety of clouds that formed in the noonday sky – and how they morphed during the afternoon into shapes both benign and, well, sinister.
Her father’s cottage was a pastel melange of creams and pale yellows, though topped with the obligatory red tile roof, and there were still gaslights along the boardwalk that led into town, and to the railway station. She loved to watch the lamplighter as he came along in the evening, setting all the little globes ablaze as he passed. And after all the late afternoon insects disappeared in the darkness, men and women could soon be seen strolling down the boardwalk, a few hand-in-hand but most just swept up in the moment…
One evening, just as the lamplighter passed, she watched a spry old man walking along with a bird perched on his shoulder, and she immediately assumed he was a sea captain. She was sitting on the cottage’s front porch at the time, watching the clouds in their sky as night came and stole away all the day’s best colors, but the sight of this unexpected old man was something new and utterly strange.
As he drew near she saw he was dressed all in black, even the short cape he wore was the shade of deepest night, and she shivered when she saw the bird on his shoulder – for it too was the very same black. Who, she wondered, walked with a raven on their shoulder…?
He stopped once and looked out to sea, and then the strangest thing happened.
The old man walked with the help of a cane, and just then he tapped the cane on the boardwalk twice – and Imogen jumped when two bolts of lightning flickered somewhere along the far horizon.
Then the old man smiled at the sky – as if he alone had commanded the lightning.
She watched as the old man resumed his walk a moment later, but when the hair on the back of her neck tingled she felt like running away and hiding under her bed. Still, she remained frozen in place as he came along the boardwalk, coming ever closer to her father’s cottage in the night.
“Well, hello there,” the old man said as he came to the little white picket fence guarding the house. He studied her for a moment – almost quizzically, with a wry twinkle in his eye and a sly grin forming in the shadows. “I think I know you.”
She was too afraid to speak, too fearful of the immense power she felt radiating from inside the man’s eyes, but she managed to shake her head.
He brought a manicured hand to his face and stroked his chin for a moment, as if the act of divining would somehow spur forth the memory. “Let me see,” he sighed. “Ah yes, the conservatory! Imogen Schwarzwald! I was at the very first performance of your concerto! What a brilliant piece, so many cunning transitions!”
His words seemed to draw her out, as if his awareness of her abilities made him somehow less threatening. She smiled at him, seemed to curtsy in the smallest measure possible.
“And where is your father? Isn’t he with you this evening?”
She nodded. “He’s getting tobacco for his pipe.”
“Ah. A fine evening it is, then. Very fine indeed. Were you watching the clouds just now?”
She nodded again, looked away to the horizon – but all was quiet now. “How did you do that?” she whispered, then she turned to look the old man in the eye.
“How did I do what?”
“With your cane. Did you summon the lightning?”
He laughed at that. “Oh, indeed. Yes, of course I did. Would you like to see me do so again?”
She nodded her head, wanting to believe such things were possible – yet at the same time hoping it could never be – then she saw him studying the sky, as if waiting for just the right moment…
With his cane in hand he gently tapped the boardwalk once and then pointed to his left with the brass handle, and lightning barely flickered far out to sea – exactly where he had pointed – then he turned to her: “Is that what you wanted to see?”
She nodded again. “Yes. How do you know when to tap the cane?”
“How do I…” he said, genuine disappointment on his face. “But…I don’t – know. I command, and the sky obeys!”
And then she shook her head. “That’s not true. Nobody can do that.”
“Ah…is that so?”
“And how do you know that? Have you not seen someone do that before?”
“No one can do that…”
And on hearing those words the suddenly angry old man swung his cane in a violent arc across the sky, then hammered the brass tip into the boardwalk…
…and an enormous bolt of ragged light arced from the tip of the cane into the heavens above…
The effects were cataclysmic, knocking Imogen off her feet, scorching flowers in the garden by her side, and she lay there – in shock – blinded by the light and struggling to breathe…
And then she saw him standing overhead, looking down on her as if he was studying an insect on a leaf. “And tell me, Imogen, what have you just seen? Do you not believe what you have seen with your eyes, or perhaps this has this been nothing but a child’s dream…?”
She found herself sitting up in bed, sweat rolling down her face. A violent storm was raging outside, her wide-open window letting gales of wind pour into her room, the little lace curtains fluttering to a ragged cadence called down from above. She ran to the window to pull it tight, then staggered back as soon as she saw the old man down there on the boardwalk…walking away into the night – waving his cane at the sky as bolt after bolt of lightning cracked across the darkness…
He was out of his jurisdiction now, truly well and gone and almost completely out of his mind, too. Standing on a Southern Pacific railroad trestle, watching the yellow school bus as it exited the 101…
He timed his jump perfectly, dodged bullets through the roof as the bus careened to a stop near the gravel pit…
He chased Scorpio through the works – then out to a pond beyond the slag-heaps, confronting him when he took a little boy hostage, shooting him in the shoulder once – then once again – center mass.
When all was said and done he threw his shield into the water, watched it sink as small fish gathered near the corpse’s eyes and began their unexpected feast.
What a waste… what a waste… what a waste…
The words kept tumbling out of his mind as he ran through the calculus again and again…
In a world full of lawyers, and worse still, in a world of, by and for the lawyers, what chance did civilization have? Yeah, sure, in the abstract man had rights, had to have rights, but Scorpio wasn’t a man – any more than Hitler or Stalin were men. They were monsters, ego-driven soul-crushers who had forfeited all such rights in their mad quests to control – everything. Once you’ve identified a monster, law enforcement has been civilization’s first line of defense, and it was up to the cops to either take them out or let the monsters loose to roam free and untouched through the criminal justice system…
But the system was imploding, self-destructing under the weight of too many internal contradictions, this withering away of safeguards orchestrated by all those deranged men and women in their black robes…
He sat there, the sun beating down on his neck, listening to the sirens and waiting for the inevitable questioning by internal affairs, then the guessing and second guessing by rooms full of lawyers who weren’t there on the scene and who could never really understand what was really at stake out here.
“What a waste…” he said to Scorpio, the man’s silent eyes a muted accusation. Then he felt footsteps coming out the little jetty…
“Harry? You alright?”
It was Frank. The only friend he had in this world. “Yeah. I’m tactical.”
He felt Bullitt sit down by his side, heard him take-in a deep breath. “Nice shot, Harry. And I really like the expression on his face. Did you go in and fix it like that?”
“He looks like a fuckin’ frog, man. You do that?”
Harry laughed, started to come back to the world, then he thought about the kid…
Callahan stood and jogged over to the boy, held him tight while he cried it out, then he helped the kid gather his fishing gear and walked him over to Delgetti and Stanton. “Better get his statement,” Harry said before walking back to the pond.
Marin County deputies were pulling up on-scene now, even a local from Sausalito appeared, and Callahan gave them statements before driving back to the city with Frank.
“Bunch of people saw it go down, Harry. No doubt what happened, so I doubt this will go to IAD or the grand jury.”
Callahan shook his head. “I threw away my shield, Frank. I’ve had enough.”
“Gonna call it quits, huh?”
“So, what are you gonna do. Get a job playing in a cocktail bar? A tip jar, maybe, to call your own?”
“Well, you might give it some thought before we get to Bennett’s office, but personally I don’t think that’s such a hot career move.”
“There’s no way we can win this war, Frank. There are too many lawyers out here, to many rules, and none of them are working out in our favor.”
“Yeah? So fucking what? If you’re thinking we’re never gonna win this ‘war’ – if that’s what you really think this is – let me just tell you right now you’re one hundred percent right. We’re not supposed to win or, for that matter, lose. If anything we’re stuck in the outfield playing defense; it’s the umpires calling the plays, Harry. You got to wrap your head around that, and in a hurry, or you’ll go out of your fucking mind.
They were southbound on the Golden Gate and the afternoon fog was just forming a few miles out, the falling sun shining on the bay and the skyline beyond. “It’s a beautiful city, ya know,” Harry said.
“Yeah, and it’s worth fighting for, too. Worth saving, don’t you think?”
“We didn’t make the system, Harry, but I guess we play by the rules – until we can’t. Then we have to bend them a little. Know what I mean?”
Harry looked at that face-splitting grin and nodded. “Yeah, Frank. Thanks.”
They pulled into Division a half hour later and Bennett debriefed Callahan, took a few notes then called the mayor’s office. When he was done he turned to Frank: “Hot dogs at seven-thirty sharp. Bring Cathy if you want,” Bennett said before turning his attention to Callahan. “You got a girl yet, or have you decided to join an order?”
Harry shrugged, tried to deflect the tone in Bennett’s voice by turning away – but Bennett wasn’t having any today.
“Well, my kid sister’s in town and will be with us tonight. Would you mind keeping her company while I handle the coals?”
Harry gave a brief, noncommittal nod – though he caught the look in Bullitt’s eye too late to help, then wondered if the girl looked like a water buffalo – or worse, like Captain Bennett…
Frank and Harry walked out of Bennett’s office to the elevators and it was all Callahan could do to keep a lid on it; when the doors slid shut he turned to Bullitt…
“Okay, what gives?”
But Bullitt just flashed his grin. “You’ll find out. Want us to pick you up on the way out, or have you finally decided to buy a car?”
“I told you, I’ll buy a car when I can find a place to park it.”
“Okay, so you’re never going to buy a car.”
Callahan grinned. “So, you’ve seen this sister of his before?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
Bullitt shrugged. “We’ll pick you up out front at seven,” he said as the elevator doors opened – then he disappeared towards the garage…before Callahan could get another word out…
“Swell,” Callahan muttered, wondering just what the hell he’d gotten himself into this time.
She saw the old man in the cape two nights after their first encounter, but this time she was sitting on the front porch with her father.
The old man stopped and leaned on his cane from time to time, and as he appeared to be having trouble breathing her father had taken note and begun to follow his progress along the boardwalk…
“What’s wrong with him,” she asked when she noticed her father’s attention now focused on the old man.
“Looks like heart failure. Can you see his lips, how blue they are?”
“Yes? What does that mean?”
“Oxygenated blood isn’t getting to more distant parts of his body…”
“Like his hands and feet?” she added.
“That’s right,” her father said as he looked from the old man to his little girl. “You’ve been listening to my little lectures after all, haven’t you?”
“I always listen to you, Papa. To everything you say.”
“I know you do, Imogen. No man could ask for a more perfect daughter.”
The old man continued his halting way along the boardwalk until he was just about at her father’s house, then he stopped again to catch his breath…
“Do you see his nail-beds?” her father asked.
“The tissue under his fingernails. See how blue it is? That’s oxygen deprivation, caused by blood leaving via the pulmonary artery without enough oxygen in it. The poor sod won’t last much longer in this state…”
The old man resumed his walk until he came to their gate – then he paused yet again – only this time he turned to face her…
…and now he didn’t look in the least bit ill. No, far from it. His eyes were drenched in cold fury and wings of rancid anger suddenly beat the air over their little front yard; she turned to look at her father but he was very still now and she grew very afraid.
“It was him, wasn’t it?” the old man said.
“What have you done to my father!”
“He’s the one.”
“The one – what?”
“You stopped playing the piano because of him.”
“That’s not tr…”
“Do not lie to me, child,” the old man thundered, suddenly swinging the cane overhead and summoning a wall of boiling thunderstorms out of the clear blue sky. He slammed the cane onto the walk and a hideous wail seemed to peal from the air itself, then jagged bolts erupted from the earth and leapt to the sky.
His furies spent a moment later, the old man’s eyes locked on hers once again.
“He didn’t do it!” she screamed. “It was my choice! Mine!”
“Liar!” came the old man’s deafening reply, and this time great gouts of blue-white power radiated from his eyes – as if some sort of cruel power was building up within the earth itself.
“No! Please, no!” she cried. “What can I say? What can I do to convince you?”
And at once everything was as it had been, only now the old man was bent over from his disease, blue-lipped and desecrated, a line of sweat forming over his ragged breath…
…then her father stepped from the porch and went to the old man…
“May I help you, sir?” Aaron Schwarzwald said as he stood beside the old man, taking his wrist in hand and feeling for a distal pulse.
“I know you,” the old man said. “Schwarzwald, isn’t it? You’re a surgeon at the Rigshospitalet, are you not?”
“Yes, that’s correct. Do I know you, sir?”
“Oh, we met once upon a time. Years and years ago I think it was, when you were still quite young, but I last saw you when your daughter played her new piece, the piano concerto.”
“At the conservatory?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Ah, yes. I think I recall seeing you there. What a strange…”
“Coincidence?” the old man said, smiling. “Perhaps so. Do you think I could hear Imogen play this evening? It would mean so much to me,” he said, his voice now almost ingratiating – even if disingenuously so.
Aaron wanted to protest but the look in the old man’s eyes stayed the looming objection. “Certainly, sir. Please, lean on me. Imogen? Could you put the water on for some tea, please?”
She felt light-headed, like the ground she was walking on was about to give way underfoot as she led the way into her father’s house. She watched them climb the steps, watched as they stepped inside and as the old man took a seat in her father’s favorite chair, the smile on his face distorted with cruel purpose.
She held her hands to her face and looked at her fingers, not yet fully understanding the power she beheld, not yet sure why the old man was here now, sitting and waiting for what she knew could never be.
No, she could never let it be that way again.
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | and thanks for reading…