The audience was getting restless. Leopold Beckenbauer had been scheduled to begin the concert at 8:01, and it was now 8:20.
I looked over at the stage area and saw Dennis whisper something to Kumar. Kumar, Superman tee shirt barely visible under his jacket, nodded his head and disappeared out the side door close to the stage.
I became temporarily distracted by the flickering illuminated red exit sign above the door; it was stark and garish in the lovely Beverly House recital hall. The maroon crushed velvet audience chairs were the most comfortable I’d ever sat in, and a flowing black curtain framed the stage where a majestic Steinway D concert grand dominated. The exit sign was an eyesore in the historic house dating back to 1845. But I appreciated the distraction.
Dennis spoke to a few members of the audience, smiled and patted some patrons on the back as he slowly made his way over to the Meyers and me. He leaned in and asked us in a hushed voice, “Has anyone seen Leo?”
Harlan Meyers rubbed the top of his smooth head. “Not since Mimi’s masterclass this morning.” Nancy shrugged with a little lift of her meticulously plucked eyebrows.
Dennis turned to me, and my heart skipped because I had seen Leopold Beckenbauer late that afternoon. So, I stated matter-of-factly, “I saw him a couple of hours ago. He was practicing at the Mason House. I volunteered to take him the drink he requested so André could get back to work, remember?”
Dennis knitted his fuzzy brow and nodded contemplatively.
I looked toward the back of the concert hall and watched as Kumar rushed over to where we were sitting. He put his mouth close to Dennis’s ear and said, a little under his breath, “Leo’s not in his room.”
“Then, mon cher, go check the Mason House.” Dennis nodded in my direction. “Claire saw him there earlier this afternoon. Go on. I’ll keep the audience entertained until we get to the bottom of this.”
Kumar snarled. “You should have suspected something like this. I told you he would make you look bad.”
Dennis dismissed Kumar with a wave of his bejeweled hand, and Kumar ran out through the door, ugly red exit sign still glaring. Dennis winked at us and said in an exaggerated voice, “Laissez les bon temps rouler.” Then he took off toward the stage.
Nancy whispered to Harlan, “What do you think’s going on?”
“I don’t have a clue, but it’s not like the great Leopold Beckenbauer to be late,” Harlan said sarcastically. Then he reached over and took his wife’s hand.
The touching gesture embarrassed me. I wish my marriage had that carefree intimacy, but of course, that’s on me.
I turned around to steal a glance at the balcony and wondered whether Ronald managed to sneak in, but I couldn’t see past the first couple of rows. Ronald would have kept close to the back, anyway.
Dennis climbed the stairs to the stage, brushed off his suede lapels, and said in a bold voice, “Ladies and gentlemen. I am so very sorry for the delay, but we should be getting started soon. Mr. Beckenbauer is not a young man any longer and sometimes he needs a little extra time to complete his…pre-performance rituals.”
The crowd murmured.
“Most of you have attended concerts here at Beverly Hall on the lovely grounds of the historic McClure Plantation. Some of you were even here the other night when Herr Beckenbauer dazzled in a concert with the hot young cellist from Germany, Heinz Filbert. We appreciate your patronage and your patience, and a warm welcome to you newcomers.”
Dennis glanced toward the back door, but there was no sign of Kumar. He sat at the piano and went into show mode, flashing a big grin to the audience. “I’m not Leopold Beckenbauer, but I love piano music and that’s what you came for!”
The audience’s applause was tepid. The impromptu performer gestured toward the lighting booth and the house lights dimmed.
Mimi was sitting in the row in front of me with her face inches away from her phone, the back-light obnoxiously illuminating her kitten nose, and Hai was sunken deep in the seat beside her, still sulking. Neither of them seemed to be aware there was anything wrong.
“Here’s a little cakewalk I learned as a youngster growing up in New Orleans,” Dennis said as he flexed his fingers. “Ojos Criollos by the great American composer from my hometown, Louis Moreau Gottschalk.”
The audience applauded more enthusiastically this time; Dennis Beasley was well known in the States and across Europe for his interpretations of Gottschalk, the first composer from America to have gained worldwide acclaim.
Soon, the crowd was pacified with Dennis’s fanciful rendition of the lighthearted Cuban dance. His right-hand trills were elegant and as dainty as lace, and the steady left-hand cadences seemed to lull the audience away from the aggravation of having had their concert delayed.
Halfway through the piece, I saw Kumar enter through the side door, wringing his dark brown hands. He waited until Dennis finished the piece before he climbed on stage, then he whispered something to Dennis. They hastily disappeared backstage.
The crowd began shifting in their seats, and the knots in my stomach tightened.
Finally, Dennis reappeared and stepped to the front of the stage. He cleared his throat, removed his rhinestone-studded star-rimmed glasses, and nervously ran his fingers through his curly hair.
“Ladies and gentlemen. I’m afraid I have some bad news. My…associate has just located Mr. Beckenbauer, and I’m afraid…um, well, this is very difficult to say.” He put his glasses back on and looked in our direction. “Leopold Beckenbauer has been murdered.”
It felt as if the air was being sucked out of the concert hall as the crowd collectively gasped. Nancy dramatically clutched her hand to her chest and Harlan exclaimed, “Can’t be!” Mimi and Hai both lifted their heads, finally shaken out of their narcissistic reveries.
I had a feeling it was going to be a long night.
Danny drove me to McClureville the Sunday before Leopold Beckenbauer was murdered. He didn’t have to do it, what with me asking for a separation and all, but he’s always been kind like that. He really does deserve someone better than me.
Asheville was thick with fog when we left that morning, and I felt as if the opaqueness were wafting into my brain, making me dull headed. Luckily, Danny didn’t say much until we crossed over into South Carolina, but when he did speak he trod over the same ground we had been covering for the past month. I watched as the trenches got deeper.
“Claire. I don’t want this. You know that, right?”
An eighteen-wheeler whizzed past. What could I say that I hadn’t already said?
“Claire. I found a couple of highly recommended therapists…don’t you think we should at least try? We have over fifteen years invested in this marriage, and I’m not ready to give up.”
I continued looking out the window and chewed on my thumbnail. Nasty habit.
We traveled on for a while in silence, but as we got closer to the McClure Plantation in South Carolina, he had to bring it up again. At least the fog had lifted when we crossed the state line.
“Claire. I love you. I don’t know what’s happened, why you want this separation.” His knuckles whitened as he gripped the wheel.
The funk I was in was different from the ones I’d experienced in the past. The feeling was darker, more focused, and it terrified me. I couldn’t expect him to understand that the clouds clinging to me made everything about my life dim and dirty, including my relationship with him.
I knew I would eventually have to say something, so I repeated what I’d been saying for the past month. “I just need space, Danny. You’ve always been too good for me, always put up with my…weirdness. I can’t keep asking you to deal with my problems. You should find someone who doesn’t have all these hang-ups.”
“But why won’t you go to therapy? We could work on these things together!” The exasperation in his voice was as thick as the fog we had left behind in North Carolina.
“I told you, there are just some things I need to take care of myself.” My statement sounded lame, but it was true.
“Like this piano intensive? I don’t know what the deal is, but you haven’t been the same since you signed up for this thing.”
I looked at his strong profile and knew he was right. I had changed.
“Claire, in the past six months you’ve almost become a different person. First your hair color, then last week it’s your eye color. And I don’t mind, really I don’t. You’re just as beautiful to me as a brunette with dark brown eyes. But your sudden obsession with planting flowers and practicing the piano all the time, night and day? And the nightmares? It’s been years since you’ve had those. What’s going on?”
I saw the sign to the plantation. “We’re here,” I said flatly.
Danny’s jaw tightened as he pulled off the narrow two-lane highway onto the long driveway that led to the McClure Plantation. This was where I’d be spending the next week of my life. After that, I hadn’t a clue.
The entrance to the driveway was delineated by an elaborate marker, a large black iron gate attached to two massive red brick square obelisk monuments with ferocious looking brass lions perched on top. The first half of the drive was lined with what must have been hundred-year-old pecan trees that cast us into deep shade. We passed several signs and eventually turned left at the “Welcome Pianists” sign.
Danny drove around a slight bend and we arrived at the Parrish House, which was where I was to check in upon arrival. He slowed the car to a crawl, but he couldn’t put it off forever. He would have to let me go, eventually.
Once he finally stopped the car, I got out, walked around to the back of the car and waited for him to pop the trunk. I knew he would come around to take my bag out for me, but I snatched it before he could make it back there. When he saw me holding my bag, his face sank, as if I had just stolen his favorite candy.
“Listen, Claire,” he said, “this is killing me.”
The Carolina blue sky was familiar and welcoming, but I’d forgotten how intense the humidity was during the dog days of summer. I held my bag in front of me, damp hands gripping the handle; I wanted this part to be over.
“But I’ll do as you wish. I’ll give you some space. I won’t even call, okay?” Danny reached for my hand. I didn’t let go of my bag. He awkwardly lowered his hand and said, “I hope this week is good for you, Claire.”
My eyes drifted down to the handle of my bag. “Thank you.” Then I turned and walked toward the Parrish House to sign in for the McClure Piano Intensive.
K. Kris Loomis is the author of the novel, The Sinking of Bethany Ann Crane, as well as the short story collection, The Monster in the Closet and Other Stories. Her sophomore novel, The Murder of Leopold Beckenbauer, will be released in December 2018.
Kris also writes nonfiction. She is the author of After Namaste: Off-the-Mat Musings of a Modern Yogini as well as several other books about yoga and meditation, and a travelogue about her time spent living in Ecuador.
When Kris isn’t at her standing desk writing, she’s usually off playing chess, folding an origami crane, or practicing a Beethoven sonata on the piano. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two cats.
You can find out more about Kris and get updates from her writing world by subscribing to her author website, www.kkrisloomis.com, or by connecting with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram @kkrisloomis!