Jeffrey Stepakoff's The Melody of Secrets is an epic love story set against the 1960s U.S. space program, when deeply-buried secrets could threaten not just a marriage, but a country.
Maria was barely eighteen as WWII was coming to its explosive end. A brilliant violinist, she tried to comfort herself with the Sibelius Concerto as American bombs rained down. James Cooper wasn't much older. A roguish fighter pilot stationed in London, he was shot down during a daring night raid and sought shelter in Maria's cottage.
Fifteen years later, in Huntsville, Alabama, Maria is married to a German rocket scientist who works for the burgeoning U.S. space program. Her life in the South is at peace, purposefully distanced from her past. Everything is as it should be—until James Cooper walks back into it.
Pulled from the desert airfield where he was testing planes no sane Air Force pilot would touch, and drinking a bit too much, Cooper is offered the chance to work for the government, and move himself to the front of the line for the astronaut program. He soon realizes that his job is to report not only on the rocket engines but also on the scientists developing them. Then Cooper learns secrets that could shatter Maria's world...
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About the Author
JEFFREY STEPAKOFF has written for more than a dozen different television series, including the Emmy-winning The Wonder Years, Sisters, and Dawson’s Creek, for which he was co-executive producer. Author of the acclaimed novel, Fireworks Over Toccoa, he has also developed and written plays, TV pilots and major motion pictures. Stepakoff holds a BA in journalism for UNC-Chapel Hill and an MFA in playwriting from Carnegie Mellon. He lives in Georgia with his wife and three young children. His fiction is published in six languages.
Read an Excerpt
The Melody of Secrets
By Jeffrey Stepakoff
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Jeffrey Stepakoff
All rights reserved.
THE LAST OPTION
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA, 1957
"We have sixty seconds to launch, sir," a nervous technician announced.
Air force colonel Mike Adams, a big man with an executive presence, nodded as he leaned forward on the control panel, looking out the thick plateglass window at the launch site below.
"Satellite beacon is active and operating," another tech said, and the steady beep, beep, beep of a small satellite — the payload atop the slender rocket on the launch pad below — could be heard transmitting over speakers in the control room.
"What makes you boys think this one's gonna fly?" Adams asked without bothering to look back at the half-dozen men in the small room. With his deep, low voice, at once folksy but commanding, Adams struck them as someone who in another life might have run a Nebraska cattle operation.
"My team has tested and retested every piece of hardware on that rocket," a navy lieutenant said.
"And that's in addition to the safeguards provided by each and every subcontractor," a white-coated scientist added.
Colonel Adams scratched his belly, pressing it up against the control panel, eliciting a glance from the navy lieutenant.
It was clear that the lieutenant didn't like his operation's being second-guessed by some Pentagon administrator, no matter how superior, and he wasn't going to make a secret of it — this project warranted Washington's full support. "We have absolute confidence in the Vanguard rocket, Colonel."
"You had absolute confidence the last two times you tried to launch her," Adams said, finally turning to the men.
"Did we hit a few snags?" the scientist asked. "Sure. And we found them and fixed them."
"Fifteen seconds!" a tech called out.
"Colonel Adams, that rocket down there is the sum of America's best minds," the navy lieutenant said, his tone deftly straddling reassurance and rebuke. "Have some faith, sir."
Beep, beep, beep, the satellite's transmission reverberated throughout the room. It was a sound filled with the promise of technology, the expense of tens of millions of dollars in funding, the dreams of a nation, and the security of a way of life.
"I have plenty of faith." Adams looked back down at the slender Navy Vanguard TV3 rocket, seventy-two feet tall, steam rising from beneath her as the launch sequence continued. "It's the people of this country that don't. They don't care about your snags and fixes. They just want to know why the Russians beat America into space. They want to know why they have a Soviet satellite flying over their heads right now when 'America's best minds' can't seem to throw a grapefruit over a barn, let alone get our own satellite up there. Gentlemen, this bird had better fly."
"Five, four, three, two, booster is ignited, and — liftoff! We have a liftoff! Vanguard TV3 is a go!"
All the men leaned toward the glass window, watching with rapt attention, the stakes of this mission apparent on their faces.
* * *
All across America, people watched the launch on their television sets.
In Sacramento, a family of five gathered in their living room eating breakfast on standing metal trays, gripped by the images of the launch on their bulky black-and-white set.
In Manhattan, a young man threw open the front door of his apartment, tossed his hat, and ran into the kitchen to join his pretty wife, an infant in her arms. Without turning her face from the television, she reached out and took his hand.
In Wichita, a farmer in dusty coveralls stood on his front porch and peered in through a wide-open window at the television set in his living room, his family congregated around it. He wiped his brow, a look of wonder on his face.
* * *
On an unfurling ball of golden flame, fueled by just the right mix of liquid oxygen and ethyl alcohol, the rocket began to defy gravity and rise, slowly, gracefully, like a ballerina going en pointe. It was a thing of grand beauty to behold.
In the control room, the glass window vibrating with the steady rumbling of the ascending rocket, several of the men began to applaud. A couple cheered.
About four feet over the launch pad, the pillow of roaring fire and smoke expanding underneath it, the rocket hung in midair, levitating, and then abruptly lost thrust, dropping back down to the concrete launch pad, fuel tanks rupturing and bursting, causing the entire rocket to explode and quickly burn up in its own flames.
Propelled out of their stupor by the oncoming debris, the men quickly ducked down as shrapnel flew up toward the control room window. A toaster-sized chunk of blackened rocket engine slammed into the glass, cracking it from top to bottom, leaving a web of wavelike lines in its wake.
Then there was silence, except for the beep, beep, beep.
Tentatively, the men rose, looked out the damaged window, and saw lying below in a nearby patch of tall grass, the small aluminum sphere that was supposed to be in the heavens above them. Thrown from the top of the rocket, it was dented and charred but still transmitting what now seemed a wretched earthbound sound.
Beep, beep, beep. It was mocking them.
Stunned, the men silently watched the widening trail of black smoke float out over the Atlantic in the distance.
Finally, Adams picked up a phone. "Get me the executive officer at Redstone."
"You're going to the army?" The navy lieutenant asked.
"We're done here."
The scientists and technicians immediately exchanged worried looks. No one wanting to be the first to object — it was common knowledge among them that former enemies were on staff at the highly classified Redstone army base.
"Sir —" The navy lieutenant raised his voice. "You can't put the Germans on this."
"I don't have any other options." Adams turned away, phone to his ear, looking down through the shattered glass at the disaster below.
Pushing aside the rolling chair separating their bodies, the navy lieutenant got in his face. "Colonel, with all due respect — and interdepartmental politics entirely aside — this is a matter of national security. The highest kind. You can't put the Germans on this."
Adams met his eyes and held them until it was very clear who had the power in this room. "Actually, Lieutenant, I can."CHAPTER 2
HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA, THE NEXT DAY
From the air, there was cotton, field after field of it, rolling like whitecaps gently breaking on an endless sea. As one came up from the south, as the big cargo planes did on their way in from the cape in Florida, over the pristine Tennessee River, whose snaking tributaries fed the rich ruddy soil in the fields, Redstone Arsenal and the army's affiliated airbase sprawled over the entire southwestern quadrant of Huntsville — tens of thousands of acres of fresh gray concrete and low-lying government installations, smack dab in the middle of the cotton sea. Brown military vehicles buzzed back and forth along the skinny two-lanes between the fields to the west of town.
And to the east, past the sooty old textile mills and dry-goods warehouses and the small downtown encircling the yellow brick courthouse, just beyond the historic districts — Twickenham and Old Town and Five Points, with their lovingly maintained antebellum homes — spreading out into the horseshoed base of Monte Sano, a new suburban neighborhood was being rapidly built.
Welcome to Blossomwood read the hand-carved sign on one of the red brick posts at the entrance to the community. A tableau of a merry family of openmouthed hummingbirds was painted vividly on the sign.
The main street, paralleled by milky-white sidewalks, wound along carefully planned one-acre tracts, each one covered with spotless green turf, and multihued annuals and azaleas, and pines young and old. Set generously back from the street, each lot contained a brand-new one-story ranch-style house, some built as recently as within the year — a response to the steady rise in military personnel.
With their long, low roofs, wide, overhanging eaves, oversized windows with shutters, and simple exterior trim, these rambling red brick ranchers were sleek and restrained in design, evoking a confident charm, a certain elegance in their utility. It was an aesthetic that sparked first in California after the war and had now caught on, with minor regional refinements, throughout the new suburbs springing up in the Deep South. On the streets of Blossomwood, past the carefree children playing on expansive driveways, the sound of a dog barking brightly, the scents of sawdust and sod, there was a pervasive rightness to how things were — a living, breathing validation of a way of life where man was free not only to dream but to pursue his full potential.
Branching off the main street in the subdivision, down Monterrey Drive, to the very end of a cul-de-sac, Sierra Circle, workers installed several root-balled dogwoods in the front yard of a particularly charming new brick ranch home.
Penny Tucker, a full-bosomed woman in a satin pencil dress mercilessly cinched at the waist, sashayed past the landscape workers — their heads turning in unison. Pointy-toed heels click-clacking away, she floated past a grouping of azalea bushes still in containers, up the front steps, across the deep front porch, and rang the doorbell.
Maria Reinhardt opened the door, a tray of chocolate-covered Rice Krispies Treats in her hands. The waifish teen who had played that violin in the cottage in Germany twelve years ago was now a beautiful refined woman in her late twenties. "Penny! Oh good, you're just in time."
Penny stepped inside.
"Tell me," Maria said, her German accent barely detectable. "Too much chocolate?"
"Honey, there is no such thing as too much chocolate," Penny said with her languorous Lower Alabama drawl, picking out a perfectly cut square and popping it into her mouth. Chewing, Penny vocalized her pleasure, emphasizing her point.
Maria closed the door to her house and they walked through the foyer, passing the open living room to the left, stopping at the dining room on the right.
"I have proper strudel and Black Forest cake," Maria said. "But Peter is coming home from boarding school today and he loves these Krispies things." She put the tray on the table next to a cake on a glass stand.
"Your kid's got good taste."
"Who would think to cook breakfast cereal with marshmallows and butter?"
"American ingenuity at its finest." Penny spied a pitcher of martinis and began to pour herself one.
Maria popped a square into her mouth, closing her big eyes with pleasure as she chewed. "I love America."
Sipping from the martini glass in her hand, Penny took in the sight of her friend standing before the long, elegant living-room table, covered with bowls and dishes and platters of pretty little finger sandwiches and frosted baked confections. It was a scene straight out of a ladies' magazine.
In her full-skirted sleeveless tea dress, Maria was fine-boned and feminine. Blond hair perfectly curled and set, soft-toned matching lipstick and nails, her creamy skin pastel and muted, she moved like a dancer Renoir might have conjured.
Maria stepped back, surveying the table, her expression dropping when she noticed a burned-out lightbulb in the fixture above the table. She shook her head and went to a cabinet.
"I had a leaky kitchen faucet for three weeks," Penny said. "I asked Jimmy to fix it every day, and every day it just dripped and dripped. One day he came home from the base after a long day of test piloting looking for his supper. But all he found in the kitchen was a monkey wrench. I had a steak at the officers' club that night and when I came home my sink was fixed." Penny sucked a gin-soaked olive off a toothpick.
Maria strode back to the table, chin high, a lightbulb in her raised hand. Even doing the most mundane tasks, Maria Reinhardt was poised as a princess. Indeed, if Penny was Marilyn Monroe, Maria was Grace Kelly.
"Oh, honey, you can't get to that right now," Penny said, her palm out toward the food-covered table. "Just give Hans a kick when he comes home later. He designs rockets for the army. I'm confident he can change a lightbulb in his own house."
"Yes, well, I birthed a baby. After that, I am confident I can do anything." Resolve on her face, Maria kicked off her midheight pumps and, bulb in hand, stepped up onto a chair.
"I'm telling you," Penny went on. "You are too sweet. Men are like horses. You have to know when to feed 'em and know when to kick 'em. Only way you'll ever get 'em to jump."
"I need jumping done right now." Maria hopped up onto the dining room table.
"Oh, watch the cake, dear!" As though she were watching a game show on television, Penny just leaned against the wall, sipping her martini, entirely amused at the spectacle. This was definitely not something you'd see in the Ladies' Home Journal.
In nylon-stockinged feet, Maria tiptoed across the slippery polished table, stepping over and around all the trays and bowls of food. She reached up high to the space-age-themed fixture above her head. A gleaming bronze base from which sixteen poles of varying lengths protruded, each holding a bulb at the end, it called to mind the structure of an atom. Stretching precariously, using her fingertips, Maria removed the burned-out bulb, replacing it with the new one.
"Bravo!" Penny clapped.
"Thank you for your support," Maria said with a grin as she gingerly stepped over the food. Feet arched, toes pointed, holding her skirt just above the frosted cakes, she made her way to the edge of the table and, old bulb in her elongated hand, leapt to the floor, landing like a ballerina in a third-position curtsy.
The doorbell rang.
"Now we are ready for tea," Maria said, stepping into her shoes, smoothing down her skirt, and walking with the calm of a thoroughly prepared hostess to the door.
"Guten Tag, mein lieber Freund," said Sabine Janssen when Maria opened the door.
"Good afternoon to you too, Sabine."
Sabine smiled, a bit sheepishly, as she stepped in and kissed Maria on the cheek. Both women knew the only way they would assimilate and truly make Alabama their home was to speak English. But Sabine, her crystal blue eyes darting and nervous, had a much harder time with this than Maria.
Before Maria closed the door, another woman, conservatively dressed, her helmet of dark hair sprayed immobile, white patent leather purse swinging madly from one hand, a Tupperware container balanced in the other, flew past the landscape workers and ran up the steps to the door.
"Catastrophe!" Carolyn Propst exclaimed, easing right by Maria and Sabine and striding into the house as if it were her own. She threw the purse like a hand grenade onto a sectional sofa in the living room and dropped the Tupperware down on a coffee table with a thud.
"What happened?" Sabine asked, alarm in her guttural voice, stepping over to join Carolyn.
"We have a complete catastrophe on our hands is what happened!"
Maria closed the door and went to the open living room, where Penny had placed herself on the sofa, a fresh martini in hand. On the walls behind her were framed petit point works, finely embroidered landscapes that Maria had recently completed to try to make the new house feel like a home.
"What's the matter, honey?" Penny asked, drawing out her drawl as though trying to settle things down.
"What's the matter? What's the matter?" Carolyn stood before the women, nervously laughing at the scope of the crisis. "The hotel doesn't have chairs for tonight."
"What are you talking about?" Sabine asked, sitting down. When Sabine focused on expressing herself in English, she tended to speak concisely and seriously.
"I am talking about two hundred and sixty-five people standing." Carolyn plopped down on the sofa, every part of her slumping like a rag doll, except her bulletproof hair.
"For every problem, there is a solution," Maria finally said, hands resting on the back of a sofa. "What exactly happened to their ballroom chairs?" Unlike Sabine, Maria spoke eloquently, which only accentuated her composure.
"Apparently, they sent them to a church in East Memphis —"
"What?" Hands raised, Sabine cut her off. "The chairs for our event are in Tennessee?"
"No, the chairs for our event are in Oswego."
"Os-what-o?" Penny popped open Carolyn's Tupperware, curious to see what her friend had brought.
"Oswego, New York." Carolyn became even more exasperated as Penny started nibbling on a cherry shortbread cookie.
Tennessee, New York. Sabine looked back and forth between the two women. "Why would the hotel send their ballroom chairs anywhere?"
"Because they had to make room for the new chairs, the ones that were not on the truck with the new tables that arrived today because apparently the new chairs are still on the shipping dock —"
"In Os-way-go." Penny said, nodding her head in understanding.
"Which is most definitely not anywhere near Huntsville, Alabama!" Carolyn said.
"The event is in four hours." Sabine looked at her slim Swiss wristwatch.
"Does the hotel have a plan?" Maria asked.
"Standing buffet. That's their plan."
"Well, that'll work," Penny said.
Excerpted from The Melody of Secrets by Jeffrey Stepakoff. Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey Stepakoff. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Last Option,
A Night Out,
The Gift of Perfect Pitch,
In Another Life,
A Moment in Time,
Magnet and Steel,
Heaven and Earth,
Table for Two,
Heart and Soul,
Repairing the World,
Dreams of Heaven,
Also by Jeffrey Stepakoff,
About the Author,