Excerpt of The Vanishing Violinist



The disappearance of Camila's violin made the national news.

The live broadcasts of the finals would be carried on public radio stations, though only the awards ceremony and concert would be televised at all. But this kind of news brought out the networks and put the competition on the front page of the Oliver paper, which until now had run only one routine story listing the countries from which the competitors came and the awards for which they were vying.

Much was made of the value of the missing violin, variously estimated from five hundred thousand to five million dollars. Joan wondered whether the press and broadcasters made up their figures as they went along.

"Such an instrument can't be replaced by money," said an impassioned official of the competition in a plea for the return of the violin. "It's a priceless treasure that should be played by a master musician, in this case the fine young Brazilian violinist from whose hands it was torn."

"Is that the way it happened, Mom?" Andrew asked at breakfast. "Did they come right up to her and tear it out of her hands?" With expertise born of experience, he caught the toast that flew out of their old toaster and began slathering jam on it. No wonder he had good hands for a Frisbee.

"Not according to Bruce, and he talked with her. He said she didn't even know it was missing until she opened the case to play it last night."

"Good." Andrew scribbled on a scrap of paper. "I needed an example of hyperbole for class."

Joan still had one ear on the radio, but in the excitement over the violin, the announcer hadn't mentioned the names of the finalists. No, this was only Monday. The judges' decision wouldn't be made public until Tuesday morning.

She was leaving for work when Rebecca called. "Mom, can you go up to Indianapolis?" she said. There was panic in her voice. "They're accusing Bruce of stealing that girl's violin!"

Bruce? "Who's accusing him?"

"How would I know! But he's so scared."

"Did they arrest him? Does he have a lawyer?"

"I don't know. I don't think so. Please go, Mom. I would if I could. You'd go if it were Andrew."

Below the belt, Rebecca. But I hear you. "I'll call work. If I can, I'll go up. But honey, I don't know what good I can do him."

"Just be there, all right?"

Andrew had already left for class. Come on, Fred, Joan thought while she dialed his number on her mother's old, slow kitchen wall phone. At least she wouldn't have to fill him in. She had called him after making it home in one piece Sunday night. Fred, not generally overprotective, had seen too much carnage on the road to take any highway driving for granted, and so she'd promised. After the events of the evening, it had been good to know he was expecting her call, and to be able to unload the full story.

He picked up on the third ring.

"I was halfway out the door. What's up?"

Joan told him. "Can you help him?"

"I don't know anyone in the IPD. But we ought to try--the kid's squeaky clean."

"What are you talking about?"

"I wasn't going to say anything, but I ran a background check on Bruce after we went up there, and I couldn't find so much as a parking ticket. Don't be mad."

"Mad!"

"I didn't want to interfere, but hell, Joan, it's Rebecca's whole life."

"Fred Lundquist, I think you're turning into a father." She smiled into the mouthpiece.

"That's the general idea."

She could imagine his eyes. But was she so possessive, to have made him worry like that about how she'd react to his concern? Never mind, she thought. "So you think I should go."

"Absolutely."

"Good. I'll call the center. And I'll see you when I see you."

She left a note for Andrew and told the Oliver Senior Citizens' Center she had to be gone for the day, knowing, but not caring, that some of the old women would confabulate romantic reasons. At the last minute, just in case, she threw an overnight bag into her Honda. She didn't have to tell anyone it was there, but having it gave her some feeling of control.

Having been a passenger instead of the driver until now, Joan wasn't sure she could find the house where Bruce was staying, but she had kept Polly Osborne's good directions and made it to the neighborhood without difficulty. Once she recognized the Schmalzes' curving limestone porch, which matched the porch out back on which Uwe Frech had broken his hand, it was easy to find the Osbornes' house next door.

Polly opened her front door only a crack at first, and then held it wide.

"Come in," she said. "I'm so glad it's you! I keep expecting to see a TV truck in the front yard, or the police with a search warrant, or worse."

Worse? Mobs, maybe? "I should have called," Joan said. "My daughter phoned this morning, and it sounded as if I'd need to bail him out of jail." She could hear a violin playing Mozart somewhere in the house. At least Bruce was still a free man.

"No, no, he's here. Trying to keep his mind on his music and practice for the finals. I'll tell him you're here."

"Couldn't you fill me in first? I hate to break his concentration."

Polly took her into the comfortable living room, where Joan reclaimed the ottoman. She had to accept a cup of steaming coffee before Polly would sit down and talk. It smelled fancier than any coffee she ever bought, and tasted as good as it smelled.

"Well, you know almost all of it," Polly said. "After you left, there was lots of talk about Camila's violin. We were all too tired to hang around, so we went home. Before we went to bed, though, the police came to our door, asking for Bruce. They asked us all about his movements last night, and they read him his rights before they talked to him. They'll want to talk to you, too."

"I don't know anything about Camila's violin!"

Polly laughed. "No, of course not. But you were here. You know that Bruce went over to the Schmalzes' house before we left for the concert."

"I saw him go," Joan said carefully. "All I know about what he did there--all you know--is what Bruce told us. The police can ask him that for themselves." Why am I backing off? she thought. Am I afraid to talk to the police? But I can't testify to what I don't know for myself, can I? Is giving information to the police the same as testifying? Or am I fooling myself? Don't I trust Bruce? But he's such a sweetheart. Even Fred says he's squeaky clean.

"They already asked him," Polly was saying. "And they asked us separately. More than once. As if they were trying to catch someone in a lie."

"I suppose they are." Fred, where are you when I need you? "I'll do my best for him. There's nothing to lie about."

"No. We've already told them the truth, and that's why they came back this morning and put us through it all over again."

"They what?" Joan set her cup down so hard that a few drops spilled onto Polly's oiled walnut coffee table. She swiped at them with her hand. Polly didn't seem to notice.

"Don't you see? Bruce was there by himself at the critical time. He could have taken Camila's violin when she was upstairs getting dressed."

"But he wouldn't!" Joan was surprised by the passion in her own voice, especially after her first wishy-washy response.

"I don't believe it, either," Polly said. "But of course, we don't really know Bruce, do we?"

Fred knows more than the rest of us, Joan thought. And if he could find it out that quickly, the Indianapolis cops can, too. The music had stopped, she realized suddenly, and so it didn't startle her to see Bruce standing in the doorway to the hall. His hair stood up in a red cowlick, and she thought he looked tired around the eyes. She wondered how much he had heard.

"Joan!" he said, and came over to her. "Rebecca said she'd call you, but I didn't expect to see you here on a workday."

She stood up and hugged him. "I almost didn't come. I didn't see what good it would do you to have me traipse up here, but Rebecca thought it would help. So here I am."

"Rebecca's right!" He hugged her back, and they all sat down, Bruce plopping onto the ottoman to face Joan and Polly on the sofa. "Not that Polly and Bob haven't been great, but they're kind of stuck with me." He shook his head. "I'm sorry to put you all through this."

"It's not your fault," Polly said quickly. Was she, too, hoping he hadn't heard her qualify her support?

"I didn't take the violin, if that's what you mean," he said. "But it was stupid of me to run over there and hold Camila's hand last night. She even talked me into going backstage right before the concert, when I can't imagine why she'd want anyone. I sure wouldn't."

She's a natural flirt, that's why, Joan thought, and she's making you feel important to her. Watch out, Rebecca. This guy's in over his head.

"Maybe Camila's got something up her sleeve," Polly said. "And she wanted you there to throw people off."

"You can't be suggesting that she stole her own violin," Joan said. "Why would she?"

"I don't know. Maybe someone offered her a price she couldn't resist, and she's greedy enough to want the insurance money, too."

"No," Bruce said flatly. "I saw her right after she opened that case. It wiped her out."

"Not for long," Joan said, remembering the radiant young woman who had wowed the audience. "A few minutes later, she was playing as if nothing had happened. She must have known someone would lend her an instrument."

"I don't think so," Polly said. "She'd have to be willing to risk not getting to play. But if she sold it and declared it stolen, she'd be getting twice the value of the violin. The thirty-thousand-dollar first prize is nothing compared to that."

"Camila's father is a wealthy banker," Bruce said. "How could she possibly need money so badly? You know her violin will increase in value every year. And what will she do for an instrument now? Even if she faked a theft for the insurance and kept the violin, she could never play it in public again."

"Neither could anyone else," Joan said. "So why would anyone buy it from her, once it's known to be stolen property? For that matter, why would any violinist steal it? Doesn't that rule you out?"

"Well, sure," Bruce said. "I mean, even if I would do such a thing. Who would want a violin he couldn't play?"

"Collectors," Polly said. "For some people, possession is enough."

Joan shivered. "Isn't it bad for a violin, not to play it?"

"That's the conventional wisdom," Bruce said. "But there's debate about it. Some people believe you can wear them out by

playing them. And mine has a wonderful tone, even though it hadn't been played for years when I got it."

"How did you find it?"

"I didn't. It found me. The woman who owned it heard me play, and offered it to me."

"Just like that? Free?" Joan was dumbfounded.

He laughed. "Hardly free. I'll be paying on it for years and years, unless my career really takes off. She liked my playing, and she was willing to let me have it on a schedule I could afford." He shrugged. "I didn't argue."

Women fall all over themselves for this guy, Joan thought, suddenly doubting him again. But he is a superb violinist. "How did this woman happen to have it?" she asked.

"It was her father's. He played first violin in the New York Philharmonic and the Titan Quartet until he died, years ago. I guess she'd been waiting to find someone--well, worthy of it." Another shrug accompanied the red rising in his fair skin. He ran his hand over the cowlick, which popped back up.

Good as he is, he still feels awkward about praising himself, Joan thought, and her doubts receded again. She reached over and patted his hand.

"I can understand how someone might feel that way, Bruce, about a violin and about you. What I can't understand is how a person who plays as well as Camila would think of a Stradivarius as nothing more than a piece of property." A man, maybe, but not a Strad.

"I suppose not," Polly said. "It was probably a real thief. People do steal these violins, you know. I seem to remember that Erica Morini's violin was stolen when she was on her deathbed. And a few years back, someone stole a Strad and another valuable violin out of a Rolls-Royce in midtown Manhattan in broad daylight."

"For heaven's sake, how?" Joan said.

"I think the driver was using the car phone, and they distracted the passenger."

"But no one distracted Camila. And who would know where to find her violin unguarded?" As soon as she'd said it, Joan wished she hadn't.

"No wonder they think I took it." Bruce seemed to shrivel, and his voice cracked as if he were on the verge of tears. "I don't know how I'll ever prove I didn't."

Joan wanted to argue him out of it, but the words wouldn't come. Let's face it, she thought, the odds are low that the police will come up with the violin or the thief, either one. And if they don't, Bruce is right. He'll never be able to clear his reputation, even if they can't prove he did it. A cloud will always hang over him--and over Rebecca, if she marries him.

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