He’s super talented, internationally famous, available…and accused of murder.
She’s got a new gig in a new town, new friends…and a new stalker.
It’s the two of them against the world, it seems…
And every note they play could be their last.
The dream was always the same.
I was running, running as fast as I could, running for my life–and for someone else’s. Cold sweat pasted my clothes to me, and my feet screamed in painful protest. My throat made ragged choking sounds as I struggled to pull in air.
But I knew it didn’t matter. I knew I was too late. A building loomed up ahead, a brick building with climbing ivy, a building I had to get inside. It was so close, and yet so impossibly far away. Still, it was in sight. I felt a doomed hope rush through me, and I did what I would have sworn couldn’t be done–I ran even faster.
I was holding nothing back now, my muscles working so frantically there was no time for pain. One of my blood-spattered canvas tennis shoes worked itself completely off my foot on the stairs. I didn’t slow down, really didn’t even notice. My attention was fixed on the third-floor landing, coming into view. Just around the corner now….I had to go faster….
I heard a woman scream, but I couldn’t have told you if it was me or her.
The door was cracked open. But even as I pushed it open I knew I was too late; even as I first saw her lying bleeding on the living room floor I knew I couldn’t save her….
And then I heard the footsteps, and I knew I couldn’t save myself.
The Nightmare Continues
I’ve got to tell you, there’s nothing like a recurring nightmare about a brutal murder to really screw up your sleep.
Who am I? My name is Chrispen Marnett. I am a violinist, part-time artist and until this nightmare thing started, grounded realist.
This nightmare had been plaguing me for about a week. When I woke up screaming from the latest recurrence, it was three o’clock in the morning.
Now it was six-thirty that same morning, and I walked into the Green Room of the Newton Concert Hall. Rehearsal didn’t start until eight, but what was the difference? I hadn’t been able to sleep any more, and I was driving myself crazy pacing around my little house.
So I threw my violin in the car, picked up a big cup of steaming coffee from a convenience store, and went to rehearsal early.
I didn’t really expect anyone else to be there so early. I figured I was just lucky the building was open at all. The Green Room–which wasn’t green at all, performer’s lingo is weird sometimes–had wide counters along two walls, and sofas and chairs clustered around low tables around the room. Usually the room was crowded with people, and I would avoid the groups at the tables, standing by a counter to warm up. But today, the room was empty and I was tired. I left my violin case on the counter and sank into one of the chairs.
The quiet of the large room was very soothing. The only sound was the low hum of the air conditioning fans. I leaned my head back against the chair. Sleep at home was out of the question, but I was surprised to find I could drift off to sleep here, no problem. It would be sort of embarrassing when people started coming in, though…
The sound of a door opening jolted me fully awake. I could hear faint voices approaching. The hallway nearest to me led to the dressing rooms and soloist lounge, but this seemed to be coming from the far hall, which led to the restrooms and the conductor’s office.
Nobody was likely to be in the Green Room restrooms at six-thirty in the morning. It had to be the conductor then–Darren Johnson must have been having a meeting.
“I’m sorry, Darren, I cannot discuss this any further.”
Well, now I knew who Darren was meeting so early. That particular voice always made my knees a little weak. Alexis Brooks, international superstar, accused murderer, and concertmaster of the Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.
And an ongoing fangirl crush of mine since I was sixteen, but I was pretty sure this was not a good time to be thinking about that. The voices were getting louder now, and I was about to be involved in a confrontation between the conductor and the concertmaster of the symphony I worked for.
Not a pretty place to be. Pacing the house was not looking so bad right now.
“Alexis, stop.” I couldn’t tell if Darren was trying to plead or command. “You aren’t being reasonable, you have to see that.”
“I don’t care, I–” Alexis came around the corner and stopped short, staring at me. I could feel my face start burning. Terrific.
I tried to think of something to say to him, anything that wouldn’t make me look like a psycho eavesdropper. But I was drawing a total blank, and so I was still standing there like a red-faced idiot when Darren came barreling around the corner after Alexis and nearly ran right into him.
“Alexis, I–oh, look, Chrispen is here!” Darren sounded like this was an unexpected gift. Whatever this argument was, he must really have been losing it. “Surely she will help us sort out this little difficulty. Won’t you, Chrispen?”
I darted a glance at Alexis. He didn’t say a word, just regarded me in silence. “I–you know I’m always happy to help when I can.”
“There now,” Darren said, as if this solved everything, “we’ll soon have this settled. Let me bring you up to speed, dear girl. You are aware of our situation regarding the mid-May performance?”
Oh, boy. Mid-May–he was talking about the tribute concert. Alexis’s birthday was May sixteenth, and we were featuring the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in his honor.
This was not a disagreement I wanted any part of. I bit my lip and nodded.
“Naturally,” Darren said. He put his arm around my shoulders as if we were old buddies. “Here’s the rub, though–we can’t find a soloist willing to play the Mendelssohn with us.”
“Not one?” This was a surprise–with a concertmaster the caliber of Alexis Brooks, we had no problems lining up any soloist we wanted.
“Not one.” Darren was emphatic. “It’s his signature piece, you see? He defined it–it brought him international fame. No one is willing to play it with Alexis in the orchestra–would you sing ‘Over the Rainbow’ with Judy Garland in the chorus?”
I made some non-committal noise of understanding. I glanced at Alexis again, but he seemed content for now to listen, arms folded, regarding us both with what appeared to be amusement.
“So there we are,” Darren continued. “A heavily advertised concert in two weeks, well on its way to selling out, with no soloist! It’s untenable, you must agree. So the Board of Trustees thought, quite reasonably, that–”
“I won’t do it,” Alexis interjected. His tone was warning.
“Hush, dear boy. They thought, quite reasonably, that Alexis could play the solo himself. His trademark piece! First time in five years! Just think of the media stir!”
Alexis’s glare could have cut stone. Whatever he was about to say, I could only assume it wasn’t going to improve relations between him and Darren.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I put in quickly, before whatever was behind that glare could find its way into words. Alexis looked at me in surprise.
Darren looked surprised too, and thoroughly deflated. “What?”
I shrugged uncomfortably. “Alexis obviously doesn’t want to solo on that piece. I don’t think you should force him.”
Darren’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t think I should– now look here, does he work for this symphony or not?”
“Darren!” I protested. “You’re not being fair.”
Alexis threw up his hands. “That’s what I said. You want to honor my birthday by torturing me? No, thank you. It doesn’t matter to me whether we have the damn concert or not. I’m not playing the Mendelssohn. Period.” He shook his head and made a beeline for the door.
“I can still catch him,” Darren said. “I can–”
I grabbed his arm. “Darren, wait. Maybe you should let him go. Are you sure you want to push this?”
He sat down and ran a hand through his graying hair. “No. I’m not sure at all. Alexis could be anywhere, anywhere in the world he chose to go–but he’s here, and we are lucky to have him. I know that. You must think I’m a heartless old man. But what can I do? The Board specifically demanded that Alexis play this performance.”
I sat down across from him. “Then they aren’t being reasonable, either, however you try to justify it. I’m sorry, Darren, but I wonder if the lot of you aren’t blinded by dollar signs. What’s the real purpose of the mid-May concert? To honor Alexis, or to make a lot of money and publicity for the symphony?”
“To honor Alexis, of course.” He sounded offended.
I shook my head. “Then how can you even ask that of him? The last time he played that concerto with this symphony, his wife died. He’s never played it again since he played it at her funeral. He obviously isn’t ready to play it now.”
Darren looked at me bleakly. He probably regretted bringing me into the conversation at all. “Then what do you suggest we do?”
I couldn’t detect any sarcasm in the remark. “For now, nothing. If you try to force him on this–I don’t know, he seemed pretty upset. I think he might leave the symphony before he’d agree. We’ll find someone else, anyone else.”
He sighed. “But the Board–they want Alexis to play…”
I considered a moment. “The Board doesn’t want to lose him any more than you do. Did I hear Dmitri Kast had to cancel his appearance with us next week?”
“News certainly travels fast. Yes, he’s been hospitalized with pneumonia. There’s no way he’ll be able to play. Another problem the Board will want an answer for…”
“Well, what if you ask Alexis to fill that hole instead? Not with the Mendelssohn, but something else.”
Darren suddenly seemed to be looking right through me to something on the other side. “I think you’re onto something there. Not the Mendelssohn, but something he knows just as well. Something that provides some cover in case he cracks after so many years without solo performances…maybe not a solo, then, but–how about the Bach Double?”
“That’s perfect. We’ve all played it so many times– we’ll have it ready, no problem. Dwight can play the second violin solo.”
“Yes… ” He stood up abruptly. “I’m going to call Alexis right now. If he doesn’t show for rehearsal, you’ll know it didn’t go well.”
He disappeared down the hall towards his office, whistling. He obviously expected it to go very well indeed.
I got up and went back to the counter. I was way too awake to nap now. May as well get some practice in, I decided.
My coffee was cold and my fingers were pleasantly warm and tingly from playing by the time other people started showing up for rehearsal. I laid my violin in its case and shook out my hands.
Alexis came back in and headed straight back to Darren Johnson’s office.
A few minutes later, Dwight Richards came in. For some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I always felt tense when he was around. Dwight was the symphony’s principal second violinist. He was dark-haired and dark-eyed and really a handsome man. He’d been asking me out pretty consistently since I came to town six months ago, but I just couldn’t feel comfortable enough around him to say yes. We were pretty good friends though. He dumped his violin case in a chair, stretched, looked around, and saw me.
Uh-oh. I knew that look, and I didn’t feel like having the same conversation, ending with the same no, this early this morning. I picked up my styrofoam coffee cup and headed for the sink farther down the counter, hoping to discourage him.
No such luck. “And how is Ms. Assistant-Concertmaster today?” demanded a cheerful, deep voice at my shoulder as I turned the water on.
“Oh, you know, could be better, could be worse,” I said evasively, rinsing the cup and lid. “I didn’t sleep well. But I’m still here, which is a plus. And you?”
He didn’t answer. He stood there silently at my shoulder until I threw away the cup and turned around, and I saw he was frowning.
“What?” His scrutiny unnerved me. I looked away and saw principal violist Daniella Lewis walk in, scowl at us, and cross the room to sit down.
“I knew it,” he said quietly. “You look terrible. What happened?”
I sighed. I didn’t really want to talk about this with Dwight–he was insanely jealous of Alexis Brooks. Just the mention of our concertmaster’s name could sour a conversation. But it wasn’t like this one had been going so well anyway. “There was some excitement this morning. Alexis was pretty upset. But I think it all worked out all right in the end–it sounds like you’re going to play the Bach Double with him next week. Pretty cool, right?”
Dwight didn’t appear to think so. He stared at me a moment longer, like he was trying to hear everything I hadn’t said. “That’s it? Our high-and-mighty concertmaster was upset?” He paused. “And that upset you?”
“Well, he sounded to me like he might leave the symphony for awhile there.”
Dwight snorted. “And that would be a Terrible, Bad Thing, right?” He looked like he was thinking about stomping off. “Look, there was a Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra before Alexis Brooks came here. I’m sure we’d survive if he left.”
I shook my head. “It wasn’t the same, Dwight. You were here before Alexis came, you must know that. I just got here six months ago and I can tell. Newton’s too small a town, and the symphony is too new to compete with the big East Coast orchestras. You’d never get the talent you have now without him. People don’t go to Juilliard to play in little mid-west symphonies.”
“People don’t…wait, Ms. I-Went-To-Juilliard, why did you move out here, then?”
I could feel my face turn red. “For the opportunity to work with Alexis Brooks, of course. The greatest violinist of our age–some say the greatest violinist who ever lived. And I get to share the first stand of the symphony with him. I’d have to be crazy to pass that up, right?”
Dwight was staring at me like I was sprouting horns. “And the fact that he was the prime suspect in his wife’s murder–that he stood trial for it, and only got off on a technicality–that doesn’t bother you at all?”
“No. I don’t know how to put it but bluntly. I don’t believe Alexis killed Madeleine Brooks.”
Dwight’s eyes narrowed. If the conversation had soured before, it was about to turn absolutely rancid.
Alexis leaned around the corner behind me, out of the hallway. “Oh, Dwight, there you are. Can you come back to Darren’s office, please?” His eyes cut to me, and I swear he winked.
If it was possible, my face turned even redder. What was that about?
Alexis disappeared back down the hallway. Dwight stood looking at the corner with an unpleasant expression on his face. Then he turned back to me.
“Chris, I…” He glanced back at the hall and shook his head. “Just take care of yourself, okay? I’ll talk to you later.” He went down the hall after Alexis.
The room wasn’t cold at all, but I shivered anyway.