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"Mother, what am I doing here?" whispered Detective Inspector Madoc Rhys.
Madoc was not a whit surprised at Lady Rhys's reaction. He'd been asking her the same sort of question and getting the same sort of answer ever since she'd deemed him old enough to come with her and watch his father at work. It had taken him quite a while as a child to figure out precisely what Sir Emlyn was accomplishing by standing up on a little box in front of a lot of people dressed up as penguins, turning his back to the audience, and waving his arms around. It had taken his parents still longer to accept the realization that he, the second of their three children, was hopelessly, incontrovertibly, and quite shamelessly tone-deaf.
While his elder brother, Dafydd, warbled and preened his way toward operatic fame and even got to sing lead tenor in oratorio and cantata under his father's direction, Madoc had played cops and robbers with the kids in the neighborhood. In contrast to his younger sister, Gwendolyn, who'd cut her six-year molars on a clarinet reed and taken her place in some well-known chamber music ensembles before she'd felt the first swelling of a wisdom tooth, Madoc had devoted himself to reading Renfrew of the Royal Mounted and collecting his classmates' fingerprints. When he'd gone all through school without learning to tell a B-natural from a C-sharp, his parents had finally announced they were washing their hands of him. He'd thanked them politely and applied as a recruit to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Diplomatic relations were a good deal less strained now that Madoc had got married and set up housekeeping. However, Lady Rhys still hadn't got over her habit of murmuring vaguely on the rare occasions when her younger son's name came up that Madoc had a position with the Canadian government, in research. Now, out of the blue, he'd received an urgent request to join his parents on tour and not to bring Janet, and he still hadn't the remotest idea why.
It was Janet herself who'd passed on the message. She'd called him at work, as puzzled as he, to say that Sir Emlyn himself had phoned, right after Madoc had left the house. That was almost unheard of to begin with. Except on the podium, that gentle little man was usually content to let his wife handle the amenities, not to mention everything else that had to be coped with. Used to unquestioning obedience from his singers and musicians, Sir Emlyn had merely stated in the kindest and sweetest way where he could be found at which times of the day; and that he hoped Madoc would lose no time in joining him and Sillie, this being his pet and wholly nondisrespectful name for Lady Rhys. He had added his regrets that it would not be convenient for Janet to come this time, bade her a fond good-bye, and hung up.
"But that's crazy," Madoc had replied. "Tad likes you far better than he does me." Tad wasn't a nickname, merely the Welsh word for father.
Janet had replied that he shouldn't talk foolishness, that she'd worked out plane reservations which would get him to Wagstaffe at twenty to eight, and should she confirm them? She'd have his bag packed in half an hour, and what time did he want her to drive him to the airport?
So that was that. He'd explained the situation to his superior, and spent the day clearing his desk. There wouldn't be any organizational problem; he'd planned to take a couple of days off anyway because Janet's sister-in-law was already booked for a visit. He'd be sorry to miss Annabelle, but she'd be company for Janet. No doubt the two women would have a lot more fun than he would.
The plane had been a few minutes late, as planes so often were. He'd got to the hall by the skin of his teeth. A tight-lipped Lady Rhys had met him at the box office and hustled him up to her private box with no more than a "Hurry, the doors are closing."
Sir Emlyn was a stickler for starting on the dot and for allowing nobody to enter the concert hall while the musicians were performing. Back in England, he'd been known to keep certain members of the royal family standing outside until after the first number, though of course never the Queen Mum, of whom both he and Lady Rhys were particularly fond.
Early training had taught Madoc to endure with fortitude what his tin ear prevented him from enjoying. Police training and natural propensity were keeping him on the alert now. His mother had handed him a program but he hadn't bothered to find out what was being played. The pieces all sounded pretty much alike to him. The words, for there was always singing when Sir Emlyn conducted, wouldn't make any great sense; they never did. Since he was too prominently displayed to amuse himself spotting present or potential criminals in the audience, Madoc concentrated on the performers. At least one got a bird's-eye view of the stage from here.
He'd known the names of the various instruments from early boyhood, of course. Even though he couldn't tell them apart by their sounds, he'd never have passed up the chance to assimilate odd bits of information that might come in handy someday to the police detective he was going to be. Originally Madoc had been most interested in the oboes and bassoons, but only because he'd thought their skinny mouthpieces were drinking straws and those long tubes they were stuck into must be full of some delicious liquid that he wasn't getting a taste of and it wasn't fair.
The brasses had disgusted him because the musicians were, he thought, always shaking spit out of them. Somewhere along the line, he'd learned that it wasn't spit, merely condensation formed by the player's hot breath against the cooler metal that had to be got rid of so that the sound wouldn't come out as a gurgle instead of a moo. He'd asked his father once why a moo was any better than a gurgle, but had got only a sigh and a mournful glance in reply.
All things considered, Madoc and his father had always got on well enough. Sir Emlyn had made it plain that he felt his younger son was more to be pitied than censured and had been nice to him in small ways. He'd taken Madoc for little walks to visit the sheep and the hens while they were staying with old Sir Caradoc on the family farm back in Wales, as they often did. He'd listened to Madoc's reports of boyish exploits and tried to nod in the right places. He'd brought back presents from tours, usually the wrong sort of equipment for sports Madoc wasn't much interested in playing anyway.
They'd done their real communicating with shy smiles, handclasps, and the occasional embarrassed hug. Madoc was astonished to realize how much he loved the diffident little chap who could cause all that noise to be made up there. He was immensely relieved when the racket ceased in a tumult of clangs, bleats, and squawks and he could tackle his mother again.
"Mum, for God's sake tell me. What's this all about?"
Conscious of eyes upon her, Lady Rhys favored her son with a fond parental smile and leaned toward him with a playful manner, as playful as Lady Rhys ever got anyway, for she was always conscious of what she owed her husband's position. She was a handsome woman still; all the Rhyses were good-looking, even Madoc. Her hair was neither black like his nor silver like her husband's, but chestnut-brown without the aid of artifice and worn sleeked back into a chignon. As usual, she was wearing her diamonds and a floor-length black gown with elegantly flowing sleeves. Black satin for fall, Madoc noted; she wouldn't go into black velvet until around the first of December. In spring the gown would be black crepe or lace and in summer black chiffon. She bought replacements every five years or so, and saved the old ones to take along for emergencies. Her system saved a lot of fuss and bother on the road; there was always enough of that without adding a lavish wardrobe for the conductor's wife.
When she deemed the moment right, Lady Rhys raised her program so that it hid her mouth and murmured under its cover, "Your father's having trouble with the brasses. Keep your eye on the first trombone." She then sat back and waited for the applause to die down and her husband to start waving his arms again.
Madoc borrowed his mother's opera glasses, wondering what sort of trouble the brasses were giving and which was the first trombone. He assumed his mother meant in fact not the trombone, but the trombonist. There were three of them on stage at the moment: one a large, heavyset man of forty-five or so with a bright red face, one a smallish young fellow with a great deal of curly blond hair, and one who was medium-sized, neither young nor old, and had no particularly distinguishing feature about him. Professional instinct told him this was the man to watch, but it was the big chap who was giving the trouble.
Trouble there was, even though it might not be discernible to the eyes of untrained observers. The trombonist had something that looked like a long whisker hanging from the tip of his slide. A piece of fishline, perhaps, or gut from a snell. With this the man was contriving whenever he stretched out his instrument to its full length to tickle the neck of the flautist who sat in front of him. The flautist was a reasonably attractive, not-young woman. Like the other female musicians, she wore a long black dress. Hers happened to have a neckline that was scooped out a bit across the shoulders. Having that whiskerish thing dragged across her bare skin while she was trying to keep her place and hit the right notes must be maddening.
And that wasn't the worst: Every so often, during a pause, the trombonist would shake the moisture out of his instrument. Whenever he shook, Madoc could see the woman wince. Trumpeters and violinists were feisty by nature; one of these might have turned around and slugged him if he tried such a trick on them. Flautists were competitive but not likely to be combative; Madoc wondered for a moment whether his father had arranged this somewhat unusual seating in order to avoid any contretemps. But he couldn't see the ever-courteous Sir Emlyn Rhys penalizing a musician for being dependably well-behaved. Was it possible his father simply didn't know what was going on?
Yes, Madoc decided, it was more than possible. To begin with, Sir Emlyn didn't look at any orchestra, even the prestigious Wagstaffe Symphony, a great deal. He was primarily a choral director, and his first attention was always on his singers. He'd come to regard instrumentalists more or less as nice, steady workhorses who could be counted on not to throw temperaments, catch colds, or have babies at awkward times, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Madoc had noticed years ago, when he'd been allowed to watch his father from the wings, that when there was no chorus to worry about, Sir Emlyn often led the orchestra with his eyes shut. When Madoc asked him why, he'd replied, "I can see better with my ears." That was another one which had taken the boy a while to figure out.
In any event, Sir Emlyn would hardly have sent out an SOS over a childish trick like this. What was going on here?
Madoc checked out the trumpets. Trumpeters were not the most sedate among the musicians as a rule, or so he'd been told, but this lot appeared to be behaving themselves well enough at the moment. The French horns were another matter. Nobody was doing anything wrong, but something definitely wasn't right. Two of the horn players were casting uneasy looks at the man between them, even while they ought to have been keeping their full attention on the score.
The one in the middle was puffing away, as he presumably ought to have been since Sir Emlyn had just pointed the baton in his direction. However, Madoc could see he was making awfully heavy work of it. Sweat was standing out on his forehead. His face was turning gradually from pink to yellow to stark white to a strange pea-green. Madoc nudged his mother and handed her back the opera glasses. She gave him another of her tight-lipped glances. Then she looked where he was looking, and her lips pressed even tighter.
Madoc thought he knew what was happening. Musicians, as he'd heard often enough, tended to have martyr complexes. Rather than miss a performance and thus concede that the show could go on without them, they'd drag themselves to work with broken legs and raging fevers. This chap must have been hit by a bug of some kind and had risked infecting the entire orchestra rather than desert his chair. Was he going to be sick on stage?
No, thank God, he wasn't. The intermission had arrived. Sir Emlyn was taking his bows, asking the orchestra to rise. The whole group must by now be aware of their colleague's plight. They let the horns go off first, the two who'd been sitting beside the sick man helping him off before any of the others. The maneuver was slickly accomplished; probably few in the audience noticed anything amiss. Lady Rhys waited until her husband made his final appearance and dismissed the orchestra, then she stood up and collected her furs.
"Let's pop backstage for a jiffy and let your father know you've arrived," she said just loud enough for those in the next box to overhear and understand that her going didn't mean they could, too.
Madoc hoped for his mother's sake that they wouldn't come upon the ailing horn player making a ghastly mess backstage, but he hoped in vain. The mess was already made, the musician lay face down in the midst of it. Some of his comrades huddled around, all of them looking pretty green, too. And these, judging from certain background noises, were the strong-stomached ones. Lady Rhys took command.
"Well, don't everyone just stand there. Frieda, go find Lucy Shadd and tell her to call an ambulance immediately. Joseph, fetch the stretcher from the first aid rack down the hall. We'll take him to the musicians' room until the doctor comes. Jason, find one of the stage crew. Tell him to bring some sawdust and a scrubbing pail. The rest of you clear out of here. Not you, Cedric. I want you to help carry the stretcher."
"Lady Rhys, can't you get the technicians to do it? My heart—"
"Fiddlesticks. The technicians are busy onstage and you're fit as a flea. Don't think I didn't notice you lugging that silly little blonde all around the swimming pool back in Atlanta."
"Wilhelm weighs a hell of a lot more than she did," grumbled the beefy man Madoc recognized as the jester of the trombone section.
"But you'll only be carrying half of him," Lady Rhys pointed out reasonably. "What's the matter with you, Wilhelm? Surely you haven't been silly enough to eat fried oysters again?"
Wilhelm didn't answer, or give any sign that he'd heard. Lifting her satin skirt and being extremely careful where she placed her satin slippers, Lady Rhys bent over him.
"Wilhelm, speak to me! Where does it hurt?"
"You'd better step back, Mother," said Madoc quietly. "The stretcher's here. Lay it down by his feet, sir, would you?"
He was fairly sure what ailed the French horn player. Wilhelm's feet offered no resistance when Madoc grabbed hold of the ankles and skidded him clear of the mess he'd made. Once the flaccid body had been rolled over on to the stretcher, everybody would know.
Cedric the trombonist was first to realize what had happened. "My God!" he exclaimed in what could only be described as a screaming whisper. "He's dead!"
"Cedric, this is no time for hysterics," snapped Lady Rhys. "Wilhelm's dehydrated himself and gone into shock, that's all. And bad enough, the silly man. He'll have to miss the plane and Lucy will be hopping. Take his foot end. Jason, take his head. Follow me."
Jason was one of the trumpeters who'd helped Wilhelm offstage. Madoc wondered momentarily whether his mother had forgotten she had a son available, or if she'd deliberately not asked him to help with the stretcher because it might impair his father's image to have a son doing manual labor in front of the musicians. No, Lady Rhys was not a foolish woman. She was used to bossing musicians around, that was all, and she'd done what came naturally.
Excerpted from Trouble in the Brasses by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1989 Alisa Craig. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 4, 2012
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