Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Domestic Violins - A Blanchard House Mystery

Domestic Violins
By Cynthia Morrow

             My superstitious Scottish grandmother once told me that the dead smile one last time if it rains on the day of their burial.
The late Annabelle Gardner Pratt must have been grinning from ear to ear. Her lengthy funeral cortege splashed its way through the rain-soaked streets of Kirkland, Washington, on a dark Monday morning in early March after a relatively short service at Saint Timmons Episcopal Church. My name is Althea Stewart, friend and former daughter-in-law of the deceased, and, just my luck, the person designated by Annabelle to give the eulogy. She’d left detailed instructions about the entire affair, starting with the music. This was only to be expected, since Annabelle Pratt had been a first-class violinist.
             When I was initially told in no uncertain terms by Annabelle herself that I was to write an unaccompanied viola piece to perform for her funeral, I quite naturally balked. A few weeks later, struggling to accept the inevitable—that I would soon be losing my dear friend to her exhausting battle with acute leukemia—I reluctantly buckled down to focus on the task at hand and came up with a lilting adagio. I then offered to bring my viola and play it for her in the hospital, but she said no thanks—she’d rather be surprised at the funeral. That’s the kind of goofy optimism that made the thought of losing Annabelle so darned hard in the first place.
              She’d also requested that my best friend, colleague, and housemate Grace Sullivan sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria” before the eulogy just to kick things off. Now, anyone who had ever heard Grace’s thrilling, almost otherworldly soprano already knew that the entire congregation would undoubtedly be weeping within the first thirty seconds, and so it went. Grace, ever beautiful in her black St. John suit and black lace mantilla over long, golden-brown curls, brought the crowd to tears and racking sobs and then modestly sat back down in the front pew, leaving me to cope with a sniffling, nose-honking churchful of mourners.
               Had Annabelle Pratt been buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Burbank, California, as she rightfully should have been, every musician in Hollywood would have turned up to see her off. She’d been a well-known and generally revered violinist who’d made her mark in the film studios for almost fifty years. Her late husband Marvin Pratt had been a less-liked, somewhat infamous concertmaster in Los Angeles before they both retired and moved up to Seattle. His murder, only a few weeks before Christmas of this last year, had shaken up all of our lives, even those of us who had unhesitatingly stuck him in the “nuisance” category.
                As it was, I found myself standing there on a sopping wet Monday morning in March at Saint Timmons Episcopal, looking out at a sea of tear-stained—and, for the most part, surprisingly familiar—faces. I smoothed my long black skirt and pulled the sleeves of my black cashmere turtleneck sweater down to cover my wrists, a nervous gesture I thought I’d outgrown but obviously hadn’t, while taking a measure of the crowd. There were local musicians, quite a few members of the Seattle Symphony, and freelancers and music teachers like myself and Grace who’d known Annabelle Pratt from Los Angeles. There were also dozens of friends and colleagues who’d flown in from LA, Cleveland, Boston, and New York for the funeral. I knew the entire LA musical mafia well, having been one of that select coterie of recording musicians myself until a little over three years ago, when I moved up to Kirkland, a Seattle suburb, after a rather painful divorce. My ex-husband, Annabelle’s son Dennis Littleton, was sitting stiffly in the first pew next to my replacement, his second wife, Simone. This was my first chance to get a good look at her, but there wasn’t that much to see. Simone was a tanned and fit California blonde in her late thirties, sedately garbed in a navy-blue Donna Karan suit and large pearls. She seemed pretty enough, I thought, in an athletic sort of way. Of course, Dennis was the real looker in that couple or practically any couple: a tall, blond god with a drinking problem who used to play excellent violin. He’d left me one day with no explanation whatsoever and then proceeded to marry Simone the day after our divorce was final. On the bright side, he was her problem now.
                I don’t really remember actually giving the eulogy, although I’d written it painstakingly and rehearsed it in front of my bedroom mirror for several days prior to the funeral. Now that the dreaded moment had arrived, the words themselves seemed to float out of me in a strangely disembodied fashion. I don’t remember playing the viola piece, either, although many of my fellow musicians assured me afterward that it went well and was extremely moving. Honestly, though, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” would have made everyone weepy after Grace got through singing it. My thoughts were, for the most part, consumed by memories of my last few weeks with Annabelle, a beautiful woman of seventy, a grande dame until the very end. I’d visited her every day in the hospital for the last three months, and we’d grown closer than ever before during that time. I fingered the magnificent half-carat diamond earrings she’d given me just before her death, the ones she usually wore, and felt her comforting presence all around me. Perhaps she’d heard her viola piece after all.
               Our mutual friend Conrad Bailey, a gruff cream puff of seventy-something, was sitting up straight in the front pew, looking unusually well put together in his dark-gray suit and knitted tie, his wiry salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a smooth ponytail, quite a change from his usual plaid woolen shirt and baggy jeans. Conrad, an internationally acclaimed pianist who’d always had a thing for Annabelle, had arranged for six strong, younger men to act as pallbearers. At the end of the service I looked sharply to the left and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Six gallant gentlemen, two of them horribly familiar, stepped out of their respective pews and headed toward the flower-strewn casket at the front of the altar. One was Emile Girard, a darkly handsome bassist with the Seattle Symphony, a man who was as completely infatuated with my friend Grace as she was with him, currently separated from his unfaithful harridan of a wife and actively seeking a divorce. He and Grace hadn’t run into each other since their unexpected meeting at a service in this very church on Christmas Eve. They’d experienced one of those rare “love at first sight” moments, the kind therapists warn us against. I was hoping that this time would be the exception that proves the rule. They’d mutually decided not to see anything of each other until Emile’s divorce was final in order to avoid temptation. It hadn’t been easy for them, but Grace had been standing firm. One look now at her stunned expression said it all. Emile’s presence at Annabelle’s funeral was a complete surprise to Grace and one she wasn’t completely happy about.
              The other fellow—and here was where it got a bit sticky for me—was Detective Harry Demetrious, Kirkland PD, as sexy a detective as the law allowed. It was Harry Demetrious who’d been assigned to Marvin Pratt’s murder case, and ever since we’d met during the investigation, we’d flirted wildly, but nothing much had come of it. He’d arrived at Blanchard House one morning in late January, ostensibly to tell me about the wrap-up of the murder investigation. He’d joined Grace, Conrad, and me for breakfast and intimated that he wanted to see me again. Well, here we were in March, and I hadn’t seen hide or hair of him since then. I’d awakened in a sweat more than once because of those dark-blue eyes and mischievous dimples, but by now I felt resigned to the sad truth—that our initial attraction had come to a dead end—so I was more than a little surprised by that familiar adrenaline rush as Demetrious glided silently by.
              No one is expected to look his best gripping a casket. I would imagine that it’s a fairly awkward business. Still, I couldn’t help but notice those heavy shoulder and arm muscles rippling beneath his dark suit jacket as he easily hoisted his end of the brass bar, and I thought—in a purely objective sort of way, of course—that he looked pretty darned good. For the briefest moment I imagined him naked to the waist, a dutiful bronzed slave carrying my palanquin through the bustling marketplaces of Rome. I felt an immediate tug of guilt for allowing my mind to wander so inappropriately during my friend’s funeral, but there you have it, the duality of the psyche in all its fickle splendor. I’m only human, I told myself.
               What the hell was Conrad thinking, anyway, inviting these two men to act as pallbearers? Had Seattle run out of trombonists? Harry Demetrious hadn’t made himself a favorite of Annabelle’s, I’m afraid, due to his role as the heavy during her husband’s murder investigation, and Emile Girard had, as far as I knew, never even met the woman. They did fill the bill nicely in the brawn department, though. I’d have to give Conrad that much, and Annabelle would probably have enjoyed knowing that she’d had two of the best-looking men in Seattle carrying her down the aisle. I glanced over at Conrad and scowled, and he returned the look with a huge grin and a theatrical wink. Men!