Cornwall, April 20th
“List for the chemist, passbook, and...bloody hell! What am I forgetting?” Angie Bathgate jerked the lorry over to the side of the country lane, kissing the hedgerow with its front wing. “Ah, the box for the boot sale.” She slapped her hand down on the passenger seat sending up a cough-inducing dust cloud. She’d have to go back. With the high cost of petrol, she only allowed herself one trip to town per week, and this was it.
The narrowness of the lane made a u-turn impossible. She threw the lorry into reverse and backed it up over a mile of straight road and then eased the old wreck around an s-curve, over a bridge and onto her farm’s drive. This would have been a nightmare maneuver for the tourist or day tripper, but Angie handled the ancient blue and yellow floral-lined hedged roads like a native. She had only gone about three steps towards her house when she smelled smoke.
She jammed her key into the side door, shoved it open and grabbed for the fire extinguisher. It was a small one, but she hoped it would be enough to keep the flames at bay until help arrived. She ran from room to room and up to each floor, mentally replaying the highlights from a fire safety course she had taken years before. The house was fine. She enjoyed a fleeting moment of relief as she headed outside. Out here the smell was stronger, but the smoke wasn’t issuing from either the barn or the chicken coop which left only one possibility. “The music school!”
Angie traded her tiny extinguisher for the large silver one housed in the barn and took off uphill towards three clapboard buildings. “Damn, damn, damn,” Angie cursed herself. Those buildings should have been cleared out ages ago. Musical instruments – some worth thousands of pounds – were stored in the middle one, and all the musical arrangements that their father had left to Bobby still resided in the back building.
Not having the door keys on her, all Angie could do was circle the buildings to find the source of the fire. She found a small but growing blaze consuming the south end of the composition room. She gave it a chemical blast from the fire extinguisher and eventually succeeded in reducing the licking flames to a smoldering mess. She surveyed the damage which, thankfully, proved to be little more than cosmetic. “But what started it?” Angie mused aloud.
As she stamped out some stubborn areas trying to relight, she noticed a burn trail in the grass leading away from the building. With her head down, Angie trudged through the long grass and found where the trail ended and a new pair of Wellingtons began. Before she could even look up her head exploded with white light.
An avalanche of white buried me before I could react to the toppling of a box of music scores. It was followed by a thick shower of dust and mildew. I fought to get on my feet, sliding on old standards while my sinuses fought off the poisons as I tried to breathe. I sneezed once, twice, oh dear comes the heart attack, three times. “Ah choo!”
“Cin dear, is everything alright,” a high tenor voice asked.
I sneezed again. This time into my sleeve, bad move considering the thick grime that had been deposited there.
“Bless you,” Ernest said with some concern. “I can’t quite see you. I assume you’re back behind there somewhere?”
I looked up at the fortress of file cabinets around me. The smart move would have been to remove the cardboard file boxes off the tall green cabinets before shoving them with the brute force of my hip in order to make more room. I used to be smart, my test scores said so but I also know I tend not to use that gray matter when I’m stressed.
“I can see you’re busy, but I really can’t find my music,” his voice trailed off in a whine.
“In your folder,” I said as I reached up and grabbed a handle of the nearest cabinet and pulled myself to a standing position.
“On your stand,” I rolled my neck to get a cramp out before continuing, “on your stand in front of your chair.”
“Oh, my chair and that would be…”
“Christ, Ernest, you can be so…” I stopped myself. Yes, he could be this dense. “Go find Rudy, you sit next to him.”
“Rudy? Is he that young fella…”
“Rudy’s your brother, Ernest.”
“I don’t know why you can’t just…”
“Damn it Ernest, I can’t get out of here right now. Rudy your brother who has sat next to you for the last ten years in this band, please find him.”
I heard him walk away muttering. Mercifully he closed the door to the library after him as the racket of virtuosos beyond their sell by date had begun tuning up their wind and brass instruments. The rehearsal would start soon and whether or not the band librarian/alto clarinet player joined the community band depended upon me shifting the giant five drawer cabinet another few feet. I decided to shimmy the cold steel beast back and forth until it had reached its new resting place. I scooped up the errant scores glancing at the titles before replacing the box. I would have to file them another time.
A blast of dueling trumpets announced the next invader to my realm. I walked out of my green fort to size up the next victim. The small wizened face of the first chair flautist appeared behind a sheet of music being shoved into my hands.
“What is this?” She said.
“A piece of music,” I answered feeling this was going to be a long rehearsal.
“Of course you daft girl. I know it’s music, but I can’t play it.”
Funny thing, I was thinking that the last time she tried that solo, but I was too kind to utter it aloud. “What’s wrong?”
“It has all this notation, writing all over it.”
I scanned a few lines and yes some industrious person had called attention to some changes in key with a number two pencil. “Erase it.”
“That’s not my job. It’s your job as Band Librarian. That’s the job, do it.” She turned on her heel and left piling one more heavy straw onto the camel’s back.
I needed a break. Why had I taken on this burden? The pay was only a pittance, and with the one exception that I had actually found a valuable piece of music amongst the tattered remains of a long forgotten donation of music, it wasn’t that exciting.
The band started to tune up and I leaned back against the wall weighing the trouble it would be squeezing my five nine self between stand and player till I reached my spot against the apathy that was creeping in. The apathy won. I dug out an eraser, took care of the music and tried to tidy myself before entering the music room to deliver said music back to the tyrant tooter. I walked over and slapped it on her stand, and before I could leave to go to the restroom to wash the grime off I was summoned silently from the back of the room by Bobby Bathgate.
He indicated with a wave of his new crutch to meet him outside. As it was an invitation that didn’t include the sound from the saxophones B flat major scale I was all for it. I reached the hallway, and as the door shut behind me all I heard was the slap drag of crutch and cast as the lead trumpet player followed me to an alcove of benches.
Bobby waited till he had settled himself in front of me before speaking. “I hear your daughter is going to the University of Exeter,” he said with his British accent. “I spent my summers not too far from there.”
“Further, Cornwall, Rose Garden to be exact. My daddy had a music school there. My sister still lives there.”
“I’ve been to Lands End. Is it near there?” I inquired.
“So near you could spit.” He smiled as if to recall a memory. “Did you like it there?”
“Loved it. I’ve been back to England a couple of times but never got further west than Exeter,” I said with regret.
A smile formed across his face and he pushed a quick hand through his gray hair. “Would you like to go back? All expenses paid.”
“Is it legal?” I asked. Well with these retired men you never know what they are retired from. Or maybe he was hitting on me? Did I want to brave his wife and that hip to foot cast for a bit of slap and tickle? I shivered.
“Legal and easy. My sister had a fire recently at the farm and wanted me to come out and look through the instruments and music my daddy left me. Just to see what’s there. She had a good offer on the farm and wants to sell up. I had planned a visit before my accident, but I don’t see air travel in my near future. What I would want you to do is inventory the instruments, get their value if you can and go through the music, sort it and store what may be of interest and trash the rest.”
“Sounds like a job for maybe an auction house.”
“No, not really. I was back there after my daddy died and did a cursory look. I sold most of the valuable instruments already. I just want to get an idea of what’s left, and Angie wants out. She’s had it with plowing fields and wants to settle back in London.”
“Plowing? I thought you said this is a music school.” I was confused.
“It’s both actually. Ah, the school is not been active since the war, but the farm has been supporting my sister for nigh on fifty years.”
“Round trip ticket, room and board for you and your daughter if she wants to help. I’ve got to know now as if not I’ve got to get someone else. You’re my first choice,” he applied the pressure. “Cornwall in May, nothing’s better.”
I looked at my broken nails embedded with mildew and dust. The band would be calling a summer recess, so I wouldn’t be missed. I also wasn’t looking forward to spending another summer in the Florida heat. “Bobby, you got yourself a deal.” I reached out and he caught my hand in both of his and shook.
“Good then.” He released my hand and I helped him up off the bench, and we made our way slowly back to the practice room. “By the way, I was going to do a favor for Brian’s wife while I was there, maybe you could do it for me,” he said off handedly.
The Brian and his wife, Dorothy, that I knew were members of the Celtic Iron witch cult. They live very well in Palm Beach, on the beach. So this was the catch. “What favor?” I asked steeling myself.
“I don’t know, but I’ll call her and she can ask you herself. You can say no but what’s the harm?”
“Cynthia, thank you so very much for coming on such short notice.” Dorothy greeted me after her butler showed me to the patio overlooking the Atlantic.
People who opt for “Cynthia” instead of “Cindy” make me nervous. I was only accustomed to hearing the long version of my name in years past when I was in trouble with my mother. Brushing that unpleasant memory away, I accepted the drink she was offering. Gin and tonic is not my usual fare, but it was nice on a hot spring Palm Beach day.
“I heard you’re leaving tomorrow for Cornwall.”
“Yes, I’m helping Bobby Bathgate’s sister with a little music library job.”
“You’re a very nice person.”
I hate the word “nice.” It often seems to hold the connotation you’re somebody others can walk all over. I assure you I am not nice.
“I’m getting my plane fare paid for, and I’m seeing my daughter also.”
“That’s wonderful. I’m going to come right to the point,” she said motioning for her butler who then handed her a sealed envelope. “I have an associate in Rose Valley, Cornwall who has a necklace that I am dying to acquire.”
“Excuse me, I want to buy.”
Phew, I thought for a moment she wanted me to steal something.
She continued, “I have the amount she requested in here, and her name and address are on the envelope.”
“I’ll have to claim this, er, purchase with customs...”
“I will pay for any tax assessed.”
“Dorothy, let’s be real here. What exactly is it that I’m bringing back?”
“Cynthia, you are bringing back a necklace rumored to have belonged to one of the daughters of Eve. Stone-wise it’s worthless. Historically, it’s priceless. It is still thought the wearer of this necklace is immune from all harm.” Dorothy smoothed the hair back from her face. “Including the most harmful thing that can happen to a woman.”
“Age,” Dorothy said wistfully.
I took the envelope.