The latest Daniel Jacobus mystery holds a mirror to the glittery façade of the concert world, delving into the multimillion-dollar sleight-of-hand of violin dealing . . .
When an anxious phone call from obscure violinmaker Amadeo Borlotti disturbs Daniel Jacobus’s Christmas Eve festivities, he and his dear friends Nathaniel and Yumi make light of it. A seemingly humble practitioner of his craft, Borlotti preferred the quiet life in the country away from the limelight. He even found love at an advanced age.
But his larceny, which began as a typographical error in a bill for a violin repair, grew incessantly. In the end he became a helpless captive of his past indiscretions and was consumed by it, and it is up to Jacobus and his team to find out how, and why.
About the Author
Gerald Elias, internationally acclaimed violinist, composer, conductor, and author, shines a spotlight on the dark corners of the classical music world with his award-winning Daniel Jacobus murder mystery series. His essays and short fiction have been published online and in prestigious journals.
Read an Excerpt
Playing with Fire
A Daniel Jacobus Mystery
By Gerald Elias
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Gerald Elias
All rights reserved.
Christmas Eve, Saturday, December 24
The Largo from Winter of Vivaldi's Four Seasons floated from the living room into the cold December night. How it managed so effortlessly to permeate the window, which throbbed jellyfish-like to the music's pulse, was perplexing, if miraculous. The music then ascended skyward, like gossamer, meeting the snow halfway. 'And a Merry Christmas to you!' Snow, on its way down, said to Music. Smiling, Music tipped his ear-flapped hat.
It seemed perfectly natural to Jacobus when the two new acquaintances then ingeniously transmuted into Glasnost and Perestroika, the legendary Russian pairs figure skating champions. Mounted on a smiling pig, they sped over the ice frictionless, as if flying, and their glossy costumes and long hair streamed behind them in the wind. They spun and leaped to the Vivaldi, defying gravity.
A jarring, threatening alarm interrupted their frolic. Glasnost, Perestroika, and the pig courageously maintained their smiles even as an immense cement wall, barring their path, suddenly loomed. 'Tear it down! Tear it down!' a determined yet comforting voice intoned, but it was too late. They slammed into the wall, and everything disintegrated into a cosmology of sparkling brilliance.
'Jake! Jake!' a new voice intruded.
'Don't shake me,' Jacobus said but feared his words were unintelligible. To his own ears it sounded like 'aahnngh.' He curled up into fetal position on his threadbare couch, determined to avoid his own disintegration.
'Wake up, Jake.'
'Huh?' he replied.
'You were dreaming,' Yumi said. 'I hope it was a good one.'
'I wasn't sleeping,' Jacobus muttered. 'Just resting.'
The harsh ringing of his old rotary telephone, the culprit which had changed the course of his dream, finally stopped, but the Vivaldi continued. A good recording, Jacobus noted. Excellent, in fact.
Jacobus maneuvered into a more comfortable position. His big toe poking through the hole in his favorite pair of argyle socks, he stretched his cold feet over the edge of the couch and closer to the woodstove for warmth.
'Who was on the phone?' he asked.
'I don't know,' Yumi said. 'They hung up.'
'Who's playing the Vivaldi?' he asked.
'Me!' Yumi replied. 'Do you like it?'
Jacobus considered his response.
'It's no Paganini.'
'Well, Merry Christmas anyway!' Yumi laughed. 'That's my gift to you. Along with your very first CD player!'
'Christmas isn't until tomorrow,' Jacobus said. He turned his back to Yumi and acted as if he were going back to sleep.
'You can't fool me, Daniel Jacobus. When you're grumpy it means you're happy.'
'Then I must be very happy,' he said and put the pillow over his head.
In reality, it had been as pleasant a day as Jacobus could remember. The rest of the world may be going to hell, but thank you, Vivaldi, for creating a few minutes of heaven on earth. That was as close to the Christmas spirit as Jacobus was willing to venture.
The pork roast didn't tarnish his mood, either. Its succulent, rosemary-laden aroma beckoned enticingly and his empty stomach responded with an urgent rumble.
'Dinner ready yet?' he hollered.
'Any minute now,' Nathaniel called from the kitchen. 'Unless you need more rest time.'
They continued to listen to Yumi's recording while they ate. The four violin concertos Vivaldi ingeniously crafted were based upon sonnets Vivaldi, himself, had written. The music depicted the seasons of the year in the Italian countryside, replete with imitations of ice cracking, bird calls, drunken peasants, rainstorms, gunshots, and dying rabbits. Even as he filled his stomach with pork, potatoes, and Pommard, Jacobus listened approvingly, both to the music and to Yumi's performance. Nathaniel informed Jacobus – something which Yumi had asked him not to do – that the CD had recently won a Grammy.
If Jacobus worshiped any god it was music, and God forbid anyone took its name in vain. Violin lessons with Jacobus made even the most precocious student cringe under his unadulterated honesty. So-called child prodigies, and their ambitious parents and teachers, were a special target of his slings and arrows. He referred to them as 'human foie gras,' providing high cholesterol pleasure at the expense of being involuntarily force-fed by from the time they were hatched until their premature demise.
The stony path Jacobus offered, though, was lined with a garden of insight into the beauty of music and how to achieve it, richer than any Yumi had encountered before or since. She had been Jacobus's prize protégé, one of the few students able to not only withstand, but also to thrive under the intensity of his undiluted, piquant criticism.
Jacobus had challenged Yumi, when she began studying with him as a teen, to use her brains, her imagination, and most of all her heart, at a time when she believed that only the hands mattered to become a great violinist. But three years with Jacobus more than prepared her for the ultracritical world of classical music in which her star had risen to prominence above the international horizon.
What Yumi was never aware of, and what Jacobus would never tell her – he would hardly admit it to himself – was that her arrival from Japan at his doorstep long ago had yanked his life from the throes of an inexorable downward spiral. If not for her, he thought, and took another sip of wine.
After dinner they toasted the season with a bottle of seventeen-year-old Macallan that was Nathaniel's holiday gift to Jacobus. Trotsky, Jacobus's mammoth bulldog, lay indolently by the woodstove as he gnawed contentedly on his own Christmas present, the shoulder bone of the pork roast.
Nathaniel lifted his glass once again.
'A toast,' he said. 'Here we will sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night become touches of sweet harmony.'
'Twelfth Night,' said Jacobus, draining his glass.
'Merchant of Venice, actually.'
Jacobus's phone rang again.
'Ignore it,' he said. 'I got something for you.' At length the ringing stopped.
Jacobus presented Nathaniel with a Size XXXL robe he'd bought in Great Barrington. He was confident Nathaniel would like the feel of the flannel, and the price was right, too. It was only when Nathaniel commented with the well-intentioned sincerity of a runner-up, 'My favorite colors. Green and pink stripes,' that Jacobus understood the reason for the fifty-percent markdown. One advantage of blindness, Jacobus thought. It saves you a lot of money.
'I guess I should give something to you, too,' he said to Yumi. He retreated to a corner of the living room where a pile of dust-covered LPs lay on the floor. Jacobus felt for the minuscule item he had stashed on top of the pile months ago, waiting for this moment.
'Here,' he said.
Yumi delicately opened the package that Jacobus had wrapped in a sheet of newspaper and carelessly bound with masking tape. It was an old score of Beethoven's String Quartet, Opus 130. Faded and brittle like Jacobus, it was the kind of thing that could sit unnoticed forever in an antique shop next to a collection of John Denver LPs.
For Jacobus, the Opus 130 was the greatest, most profound quartet in the entire repertoire. He had bought the score as a penniless student and took it to a Carnegie Hall performance by the Budapest String Quartet, his heroes. After the concert he brashly sneaked backstage, evading a battalion of wary security personnel. To reward his audacity each member of the quartet autographed the score. Other than his violin, that score was Jacobus's most valued possession and Yumi knew it. When she hugged him more tightly than she had planned, Jacobus said, 'Careful, you'll mess up my hair.'
'I don't think you've combed it since Thanksgiving,' Nathaniel said.
Yumi proposed that to add to the festivities they dive into their favorite Corelli trio sonatas before it got too late. As with almost all of their get-togethers, Yumi brought her violin and Nathaniel his cello. Jacobus, being blind, had of course memorized his part ages ago. His two sighted friends, meanwhile, precariously balanced their weighty music on flimsy folding music stands.
Both Yumi and Jacobus well knew that his former student had surpassed the teacher as a violinist. She was in the prime of her career as a concertmaster of the famed orchestra, Harmonium, and Jacobus was old and tired and couldn't be bothered to practice with any regularity. When he felt like playing, he played. When he didn't, his eighteenth-century Italian partner waited unceremoniously in its case for its next call-up. But even though Yumi and he understood their new status implicitly, Jacobus could still hear a nervous reticence when she played with him, the residual aftereffects of their original relationship, as if she still needed his approval. It made him chuckle.
Nathaniel and Jacobus's friendship went back even further. They had been fellow students and professional trio colleagues, but over the years Nathaniel's passion for public performance waned, partly from stress and partly from being a black man in a white man's world. He rarely mentioned the race issue to Jacobus, to whom he was grateful for being color-blind even before he lost his sight. These days the demographics of the classical music world were substantially altered – a lot more women, a lot more Asians – but the number of African Americans were essentially the same: insignificant. So, more resigned than bitter, Nathaniel's interests gradually transitioned from music to musical instruments. He became an expert consultant in art and musical instrument fraud and theft, but continued to play cello when his mood dictated. This evening was one of those times.
Midway through the first Allegro of Corelli's A Major sonata, the phone rang for the third time, interrupting their music-making. Yumi offered to answer it but Jacobus said no, any disturbance on an otherwise memorable night could only be for the worse. After eight rings it stopped.
On into the winter night the music resounded, and when they finally played themselves out they put their instruments away. Jacobus nestled back into his dilapidated couch, whose old cushions conformed to the impression of his body, seeking a position to mollify his digestive tract. Jacobus asked Yumi to turn his new CD player back on and play a recording of Corelli's beloved Christmas Concerto. He could never get enough Corelli, even if one of these days he'd have to memorize where all the buttons on the newfangled gizmo were.
Nathaniel settled into the easy chair, and before long The Merchant of Venice slid from his hands. Rather than 'the sounds of music,' the sounds of his snoring crept into Jacobus's ears. But on this night, even that didn't bother him. Yumi seated herself at a half-finished jigsaw puzzle of the Last Supper that Nathaniel had purchased for fifty cents at a Black Friday sale at the dollar store in Great Barrington. She had just found a piece that looked like it might be a part of the Passover tablecloth when, for the fourth time, the telephone rang. Its shrill G-sharp, ugly and discordant, clashed with the sublime G major chord that ended the Pastorale of the Christmas Concerto.
The phone startled Trotsky, who cradled his treasured bone in his gaping maw and skulked off, seeking refuge in a far corner.
'Answer it,' Jacobus muttered to whomever.
'Are you sure?' Yumi asked.
'Yeah. It's driving me nuts. They just don't give up. And, Jesus Christ, on Christmas Eve.'
Yumi let it ring ten times before she lifted the receiver.
'It's Amadeo Borlotti,' Yumi said to Jacobus, her hand over the receiver.
Borlotti? Jacobus thought. The name was vaguely familiar. Yes, it came back to him now. A small-time violin repairman whose reputation was untarnished by notable achievement. Borlotti had plied his trade not so far away in Egremont Falls, selling strings and supplies and patching up student fiddles. Well, a living's a living. There was never a shortage of fiddles dropped 'by accident' on the gymnasium floor by passive aggressive adolescents after having etched their initials on the instruments' backs with penknives. Jacobus would never have trusted his precious Gagliano with someone like Borlotti, who, as far as he knew, was little more than a hack.
Why the hell's Amadeo Borlotti calling me on Christmas Eve, and at this time of night?
Jacobus rolled over on the creaking couch, his back to the rest of the world.
'Tell him I don't need any rosin. When I do I'll call him. Should be in about five years, more or less.'
'It's not that,' said Yumi. 'He wants to come see you.'
'Fine.' Jacobus heard Nathaniel stir. 'Nathaniel, are we doing anything between now and New Year's Eve?'
'Nope. Free as birds.' Nathaniel yawned and made his way to the jigsaw puzzle.
'What I thought. Yumi, invite Borlotti sometime next year. Shall we say April? Maybe July?'
'He wants to come over tonight. He says it's urgent. Here, you talk to him.'
Before Jacobus could protest further, Yumi pressed the phone into his hand. He felt Yumi's weight, light though it was, settle on to his hip. He held the receiver to his ear.
'Mr Jacobus,' said Borlotti. 'There is something I must tell you. It's very important. You are the only one who would understand. It's very important.'
'Third time's a charm,' Jacobus said.
'I don't understand.'
'You've already told me twice it's very important. One more time, maybe I'll believe you.'
Jacobus curled his legs to give Yumi more room, setting his stomach to growling again.
'It ... it is a long story. I don't feel right talking over the phone. May I come to your home? Tonight? Now? It's only twenty minutes. I can be right there.'
'I don't want to be a party-pooper, Borlotti,' said Jacobus, 'but it's past my bedtime, and my elves have informed me my driveway's already covered with snow. If you killed yourself trying to navigate it at night my insurance company would raise my premium.'
'Listen, Borlotti, tomorrow's Sunday. Christmas Day. Why don't you stop by in the morning? It should be plowed by then, and I tell you what? I'll have a pot of Christmas coffee going. We can eat figgy pudding and watch Heidi together.'
'How early tomorrow?'
'Whenever the cock crows, or nine o'clock, whichever is later.'
'All right, Mr Jacobus, if that is what it must be. Thank you.' He added, 'Merry Christmas.'
'And God bless us, every one,' Jacobus said and hung up.
'That was nice of you to invite him over,' Yumi said.
'My Christmas spirit. How could I say no? He was nervous as Trotsky getting a Parvo shot.'
'Why does he need to see you?'
'Beats me. The last time I went to his shop was years ago for an emergency repair. My student what's-her-face came for a lesson and her soundpost collapsed.'
'Poor kid,' said Yumi.
'Poor kid? Lucky me! She had a tone a chainsaw would envy.'
'I have a student who sounds like that.'
'Maybe it's her son.'
'Could be. I wish I had earplugs when he comes for a lesson.'
'What advice do you give him?'
'Switch to trombone.'
'I learned from the best.'
'Advice like that could put people like Borlotti out of business,' Nathaniel interjected, taking a moment from his concentration on the jigsaw puzzle.
'I went to Mr Borlotti's shop on my way back to the city once,' said Yumi, 'just to buy a set of strings. He was a very sweet man.'
'Ah, I like my women like I like my bagels!' Jacobus exclaimed.
'What do you mean?'
'Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.'
'Like your head, with a hole in the middle.'
'How dare you talk to your elder like that?'
'As I said, I learned from the best.'
Yumi pinched Jacobus's bristly cheek, making him smile.
'Do you want me to tidy up the house for Mr Borlotti?' she asked.
'No, for God's sake!' Jacobus crooned croakingingly, 'I've grown accustomed to this place.'
'No doubt,' said Nathaniel. 'You've had the same junk for forty years.'
'Wall-to-wall clutter becomes you,' Yumi said to Jacobus.
'But when he's here Mr Borlotti might want to be able to walk in a straight line.'
Excerpted from Playing with Fire by Gerald Elias. Copyright © 2016 Gerald Elias. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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