Featured Fiction: Piece Number 7

 

 

Piece Number 7 by science fiction writer Philip Harris.

My name is Max Gambino and I know the real story behind Gustav Lang. Not the sensationalist crap that gets printed in the rags but the actual, honest to goodness, sweat, blood and tears story of Gustav Lang and the music he created; the story that’s been buried under the controversy and the arrests and the trial and the Lang Act. Most of what people know about him is a lie, created by publicists trying to bolster sales and lawyers trying to protect their clients. Lang deserves better than that. Music can be wondrous. Lang is proof of that.

 

I guess I should introduce myself first. I’m a music producer, and a damn good one at that. I’ve helped launch a lot of the big name acts, people you’d recognise even if you don’t actually listen to their music. Along the way I’ve done some things I’m not proud of, things that still lurk at the edges of my nightmares. I suppose that could be why I want to tell Lang’s story.

I can’t remember where I first heard his name, at a party maybe, but it was years ago, long before he entered the public consciousness. Long before the albums and the websites and the official fan club. In fact, until I found the record, I’d assumed he was a myth, an urban legend like Elvis’ lost album or that recording of the Beatles fighting over whether it should be Hey Jude or Hey Joan. Even when I did find the recording I assumed it was a joke; someone had just recorded a track under his name to cash in on the stories. Of course once I played it I knew, even if I didn’t admit it to myself straight away.

Most Saturdays, I used to head down to Camden market, take a stroll past the lock and trawl through the stalls. I’m pretty good at spotting trends. More importantly I can spot when trends are dying out and in the music industry that can be the difference between life and bankruptcy. I was looking for two things in Camden; a shift in the currents driving the charts and some independent band that had picked up on that shift.

That Saturday, I was picking through a box of records on a market stall, looking for nothing in particular, when I came across a white label record in a battered paper sleeve. White label records are promotional discs, usually produced in small numbers and circulated to DJs to seed the clubs with a track before it gets a commercial release. They can be quite valuable, white labels by big bands go for hundreds of pounds at auction, sometimes thousands.

Several things stood out about this particular one. For a start, it was a 7” record, white label discs are usually 12”, and the label was completely blank, normally they have at least the name of the record company. Even then I probably would have carried on past, white labels are normally dance music, not the sort of thing I was looking for. I stopped because there didn’t actually appear to be any recording on the disc. The sleeve had a large V shape chunk ripped out of it and the slick surface of the record was clearly visible.

I slipped the record out of the box and flipped it over. I expected to find that the disc was a blank that had somehow found its way onto the market without being pressed but it turned out there was a recording after all; along with a hand written label declaring this to be ‘Piece Number 7’. The ink was faded, as though the record had been left in harsh sunlight and at first I couldn’t make out the name of the artist. Then it clicked into place, my memory filling in the letters the sunlight had worn away; Gustav Lang. The tail of the final g looped back to curve under the rest of the name and it looked for all the world to be a signature. There was no company name, no copyright information and no sign of a date.

I was still skeptical of course, you don’t get far in the music industry by being a mug, but my curiosity had been stirred enough to want to hear the recording. I asked the old guy behind the stall how much the record was and I could see he’d wished he’d asked for more when I handed over the twenty quid without trying to haggle. No doubt he went home wondering whether he’d missed out on something big. Maybe we’d all be better off if he’d sold the record to someone else.

I wandered around for a while but Camden was pretty quiet and I was curious about the record so I decided to head home. Like most of the music industry, I’ve got a flat in London. It’s a twenty minute taxi journey from Camden if the traffic’s not too bad, nearer an hour on a Saturday

Maggie was waiting for me when I got home, draped across the sofa like she owned the place. Her eyes drifted open slowly as I wandered past on my way to the kitchen. I thought for a moment she was going to ignore me completely but a few seconds later she gave a little chirp, rolled off the sofa and padded into the kitchen after me. By the time I’d reached the counter she’d leapt up there herself. I refilled her bowl and ushered her back onto the floor while the coffee machine chugged into life.

I know what you’re thinking; a cat isn’t very rock and roll. She was an ill advised Christmas present from an ex-girlfriend of mine. The relationship had been on the rocks and I have a feeling Maggie was an attempt to bring the two of us closer together again. Three months later I was back on my own with a pet I didn’t want. I got as far as contacting a local cattery and arranging to drop her off but I never quite got round to actually making the trip.

After I’d made my coffee I settled onto the sofa, slipped the record out of the Tesco carrier bag the dealer had given me and took a closer look. As well as the tear, the sleeve was obviously water damaged but the disc itself was fine. There was some wear and a handful of very minor scratches but overall it was in excellent condition.

I’ve always had a record player but you may be surprised to hear that I don’t collect music. In fact Piece Number 7 was the first record I’d bought for three, maybe four years. I’ve got some CDs though, lots of demos of course and a few records that I listen to every now and again so I’ve got a decent stereo system.

I flipped open the lid of the deck, dropped the record onto the turntable and gave it an unnecessary wipe with a cleaning pad. I tapped the play button and watched as the playback arm slipped across and dropped lightly onto the record. I’m not sure why, but a thin film of sweat coated the palms of my hands.

There was a slight crackling as the needle began to wind its way towards the center of the record and then even that vanished. At first I thought the speakers had broken, that they’d stopped emitting any sound at all but I’ve listened to that record dozens of times since then and each time it’s the same. A few seconds of perfect silence and then the music starts.

 

My mother died when I was ten. She collapsed while we were playing in the park near our house. One minute she was laughing as I urged her to spin the roundabout faster and faster; the next she was gone. At first I thought she was playing a game, hiding from me, but as the roundabout slowed, my laughter fell away and I began to realize something was wrong.

When the ambulance arrived, the medics assured me she would be fine, she even opened her eyes briefly on the way to the hospital. The next day she lay in the hospital bed, tired but awake and I began to allow myself the tiniest glimmer of hope. The second seizure came that night, a couple of hours after the doctors had assured my father and I that she would be fine and that we would be more use to her if we went home and rested. I don’t think my father ever forgave himself for leaving her to die on her own.

 

It was my mother I thought of as soon as I heard the music. I’d never heard the record before but within seconds I was overwhelmed with the memory of her. I could see her laughing as she cheered me to victory in the sack race on school sports day; smell her perfume from when we used to sit on the sofa together, watching TV. I remembered her laughing at the terrible limericks I wrote when I was nine and the way she was always overjoyed with whatever present I bought her for her birthday. Most of all I could see her lying in the hospital bed, pale but still smiling; reassuring me that she was going to be fine even if I went home and got a good night’s sleep.

By the time the record finished and the arm slid silently back to its rest I was shaking, my face was awash with tears. I’d never cried so hard before or since. It was as though thirty five years of grief had built up inside me until, prompted by a record I hadn’t heard before, it burst out to overwhelm my entire body. My stomach cramped and I could feel it clenching, twisting, turning itself inside out. I gasped for air, desperately dragging in one ragged breath after another as I tried to stop myself passing out. Pain tore through my chest and for a moment I thought I was having a heart attack. The next thing I knew I was hunched over the toilet, vomiting up coffee and the remains of my breakfast, tears still streaming down my face.

Slowly the convulsions died away and I slumped back against the wall, my shirt wet with tears and spit and vomit. My heart was pounding, each beat thunder in my head as though my heart was intent on proving that it was still working fine, still had a good few years left in it. My stomach was sore, partly from the strain of disgorging my breakfast but there was a deep ache behind the pain that I recognized even though I’d not felt it so intensely for years. I coughed, grimacing at the bitter taste of vomit burning my throat. Carefully I stood up and, once the urge to pass out had moved on, I shuffled over to the sink.

The water was cold but the chillness helped clear my head a little. By the time I’d rinsed off my hands and mouth and splashed water on my face I was feeling much better. My legs were still unsteady and I took my time moving back to the sofa but I no longer felt like I was going to implode.

I sat on the sofa for what must have been at least an hour, just staring at the record, trying to figure out what had caused such a violent reaction. I was already trying to rationalize the experience, trying to convince myself that my symptoms had nothing to do with the music, that it was just coincidence. Maybe I was ill; some sort of stomach bug. Darker thoughts filled my head. Perhaps I’d had a seizure, just as my mother had. I was beginning to feel fine again but then hadn’t she recovered for a while once she was in hospital.

I’d never spent much time pondering my own mortality. My mother’s death had taught me how fragile our lives are and, once I’d finished school, I’d tried to lead a full life but as I sat there, staring at the record and imagining the spidery tentacles of a tumor burrowing through my brain I began to despair at all the things I’d never done, all the opportunities I’d missed.

I jumped as the sharp sound of my telephone broke my reverie. I hesitated for a moment, inexplicably angry at the interruption and tempted to ignore the call. Glancing at the record, I reached over and picked up the handset.

“Hello?” My voice was husky from the vomiting.

“Hello Max, it’s Daniel. I thought you might need to talk to me.”

An hour later I was sitting on a giant orange cushion, sipping green tea as I explained about the record to Daniel Sung, my spiritual guide.

 

Daniel lived in a loft in one of the trendier parts of London. The buildings used to be warehouses but those that survived the war fell into disuse and stood empty for a few decades until the property developers caught on, bought them up cheap and marketed the area into popularity.

Daniel had a number of high profile musicians for clients, he used to work as a runner in the music industry and everyone knew him and his story. In fact, he was running when he met his spirit guide. Or rather when he met the bus that shattered his legs and put him in the hospital where he met his spirit guide.

Apparently it’s a tiger, but whatever it is it gave him the strength to walk almost normally and inspired him to quit the music business and spend a few years in Tibet. When he came back he set up a ‘spiritual sanctuary’ at the back of one of the buildings in Camden Market. It didn’t take long for his story to get around and a few of the more open minded artists started requesting their own private sessions. A year or so later Daniel bought a loft and left the market behind.

That’s when I heard about him. My father had died, after a long and painful battle with cancer, and I had some issues I needed to deal with. I was skeptical but my assistant swore by him and I decided to give it a try. Frankly, I was amazed, first at the price and then at the results.

From my very first session he managed to instil a sense of calm. As soon as I stepped into the high ceilinged room, I felt a deep sense of relief wash over me. Even the constantly burning incense seemed appropriate, the sweet smell mingling with the earthiness of the wooden beams above.

The floors of both levels of the loft were made from solid oak, the real stuff cut decades ago not plywood masquerading as real wood. The heavily varnished boards creaked softly as you padded across them in the black canvas slippers Daniel provided for all his visitors. All four walls of the room were whitewashed brick. The original factory windows had been sealed up decades earlier and the only light in the room came from a few very discrete up-lighters stowed around the room. The thick walls shielded the building from the onslaught of the London traffic and made the room seem the very definition of a sanctuary.

Daniel had lived in the apartment for five years and somehow managed to avoid the clutter that most humans seem to acquire without actually trying. Apart from a couple of Chinese brush paintings of Tibetan mountains, there were no real personal items in the room.

The main floor was given over to the sanctuary itself. The floor was covered with a huge Tatami mat edged in scarlet and a dozen or so long sheets of brilliant white silk hung from the beams that arched across the room. The position of the sheets was significant and changed on an almost daily basis as Daniel shifted them into appropriately auspicious configurations.

Visitors to the sanctuary would sit opposite Daniel on a low bench near the center of the mat. I was never a regular visitor but I would go several times a year, when the stresses and strains of the real world threatened to overwhelm me. Daniel had the ability to make his clients feel better without saying much at all and he would often tell me that all he did was give me permission to unburden myself.

Despite my initial reticence, I’d always found Daniel’s sanctuary a haven I could rely on to protect me when things became too much. His soft approach to spiritualism inspired me to look inward, to contemplate my own place in the world, but he never tried to force his own particular beliefs down my throat. That day though, the calming atmosphere failed to shift the sense of unease the record had instilled in me. I was still trying to convince myself that it was a practical joke, that my overactive imagination had taken the rumors and hearsay and exaggerated them until they manifested themselves as a physical reaction. Of course that was before Daniel tried to kill me.

The record was sitting on the floor between us and Daniel stared at it; his fingers pressed together into a spire, both index fingers resting softly against pursed lips as he contemplated my story. I sipped my tea, watching as Daniel stared at the record, deep in thought. After several minutes he stood up, silently picked his way through the white silk and disappeared.

I closed my eyes, trying to turn my thoughts inwards as Daniel had taught me, but no matter what I tried the record was always there. I could feel it, lying there on the floor. It radiated thick, pulsing waves of stifling heat that washed over me as in my mind’s eye the face of Gustav Lang stared down at me from the midst of dark, boiling clouds, urging me to listen to the record again; just one more time. I was convinced that if I did, if I succumbed, it would kill me. Blood would seep into my brain, my heart would burst, or my overworked lungs would simply stop working and collapse like torn balloons.

There was a rustle of silk and I opened my eyes as Daniel reappeared holding a curved strip of polished wood with three sticks of violet incense fanning from one end. Daniel placed the ash catcher on the floor and knelt in front of me. Three thin pillars of smoke drifted to the ceiling and I could smell a vague hint of vanilla underneath the sandalwood. Daniel closed his eyes and bowed, pressing his head against the Tatami.

He bowed three times, then straightened up and looked towards me, “Your spirit guide is troubled.”

I nodded, although we’d never discussed my spirit guide during any of my previous visits.

Daniel continued, “Your reaction to the record is a warning. Your spirit is worn. The record itself is meaningless. You chose to channel your pain through the legend of this musician and present it as a physical reaction to the music.”

My throat was dry and although I opened it to acknowledge his comments, no sound came out.

“You must rest. Take some time off work. Turn your thoughts inward as I have taught you. Contemplate the events of your childhood. Do not be afraid, you must confront this pain now before it destroys you.”

Daniel reached to the belt of his white robes and detached a small leather bag, “Here, take these.”

I took the bag and shook it. It rattled

“What are they?”

“Spirit Stones.”

For a moment I considered giving them back and Daniel must have sensed my reluctance because he cut me off before I could protest, “I know you do not share many of my beliefs, Max, but they will help heal you whether you believe or not. You must listen to me and do as I say. Above all you must not listen to that record again.”

I felt myself frown, “But I thought you said it was meaningless?”

Daniel held up his hands, “I’m sure it is, but I’m also sure that you don’t believe me. Deep down you are still convinced that record holds some sort of power over you and until you let go of that belief it could be harmful for you to listen to it. In fact, I want you to leave it here. I will hold it for you until your spirit is restored.”

Now it was my turn to hold up my hands, “No, absolutely not, Daniel. I am a grown man and I have enough self control that I can resist playing a record.”

Daniel sat with a pained expression on his face but he knew me well enough not to try to argue and after a few seconds he gave in.

A couple of hours later I was back in my flat and as I dropped the record onto the turntable I realized Daniel had been right to doubt me.

 

The reaction wasn’t as strong the second time. Although I almost blacked out, I managed to stay on the sofa and avoid throwing up. When the arm on the record player clicked back into its resting place, I found myself clutching Daniel’s Spirit Stones, unsure of how long I’d been holding them or whether or not they’d been responsible for the less intense reaction to the record. Twenty minutes later I’d recovered enough to put the record back in its sleeve, determined not to play it again.

I had a safe in my bedroom; two in fact. One, the obvious one, was hidden behind a print of Komposition VII by Kandinsky. The second one, the one I considered my real safe, was underneath my wardrobe and it was this one I used to store the record that night.

After my experiences with the record, I was exhausted. I poured myself a healthy shot of Jack Daniels and sat down in front of the TV; hoping a good dose of mindless pap would settle me down. Of course it didn’t but after a few more shots of JD, I was ready to retire for the night.

Thanks to Mr Daniels I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow, but my dreams were filled with flashes of my life with my mother, both real and imagined. The images seemed to pulse on and off, as though there was a loose connection between my memory cells and whatever part of the brain is responsible for projecting dreams. I’d catch a few seconds of us swimming at the local pool, then a few seconds of blackness, then a few seconds of her watching me collect my degree (something she never lived to see), then blackness again.

Suddenly, I snapped awake, certain someone was in my bedroom.

I held myself still, trying not to reveal the fact that I’d woken up but suddenly conscious of a dozen itches that needed scratching. I tried to breathe slowly, mimicking the even pace of someone in a deep sleep but all the while aware that the pounding of my heart must be clearly audible to my neighbors, let alone the intruder in my room.

The clock on my bedside cabinet clicked over to 3:14.

I let my eyes adjust to the darkness. The moon was almost full and the room was bathed in a pale blue glow but I couldn’t make out any unusual shapes in the room, not without moving my head. I was trying to decide what was best, a sudden leap to my feet or a very gradual shift in position to get a better view of the room, when I heard the floor creak. The seconds rolled past and I’d almost convinced myself I was wrong and that the noise was simply the house settling when I felt the mattress shift as someone knelt gently on the end of the bed.

Unable to hold back the panic, I pushed myself upwards, forcing my back against the wall as I kicked out with my legs.

“Who the fuck is that?”

There was no reply but I could make out the shape of someone crouched at the end of the bed. They were holding something in their right hand and as I watched, moonlight caught silver. There was a metallic scratching sound and a light flared, sending flickering shadows scuttling into the corners of the room.

It was Daniel. He was holding a lighter in his left hand, a knife from my kitchen in his right. He was naked, his thin, sweat soaked body criss-crossed with scars from his accident. Although it was cold in the room, the sweat had plastered his normally neatly combed hair to his forehead. Every few seconds he blinked, his eyes had dilated until they were just two round pits of blackness. The knife shook slightly.

“Okay. Look, Daniel, whatever you want, we can sort something out.”

He said nothing and I tensed, expecting him to fling himself across the bed and plunge the knife into my heart. Reluctant to give him time to murder me I counted three more blinks then pushed myself sideways and swung my left leg towards his head.

In the few seconds I’d been sitting still, my legs had turned to rubber and I barely made it off the side of the bed. My leg flailed wildly in the air, nowhere near Daniel’s face. It turned out my inaccuracy was a blessing. Daniel had seen my attack coming and swung the knife. Had my kick connected he would have sliced the blade across my calf. Instead, Daniel was pulled off balance as the knife arced through thin air.

I landed heavily, my shoulder cracking as it hit the polished hardwood of the bedroom floor. Crying out I rolled over in a tangle of arms and legs and bed covers, pushed myself to my feet and darted towards the door. I wrestled with the handle, expecting the ice cold bite of the knife between my shoulder blades at any moment but Daniel had obviously got caught up in the bedclothes himself; I could hear him cursing as I pulled the door open and dived into the hallway.

Slamming the door closed behind me I raced towards the living room. The telephone was sitting where I’d left it, on the coffee table. In my desperation to get to it before Daniel could plunge his knife into my back, I flung myself gracelessly over the back of the sofa, rolled off the cushions and slammed the side of my head into the edge of the coffee table.

I grabbed the phone with one hand and my head with the other, pushing back the darkness that was threatening to overwhelm me. I heard the bedroom door crash into the wall and I scrambled backwards, punching three nines into the handset as I went.

Even after the front door slammed shut and the flat fell silent I was convinced it was a trick. I crouched, my back pushed hard against the cold wall as I tried to pull air into my lungs. My hands shook and my head was pounding from where I’d collided with the coffee table. I sat there, petrified, for the fifteen minutes it took the police to arrive.

 

That night, a fire broke out in Daniel’s loft, gutting the building completely. Daniel’s body was never found. I was convinced, as were the police, that Daniel did it to cover his tracks and I spent the next few months sure that he was going to break in again and that next time he’d succeed in killing me.

As time passed and the memories of that terrifying night receded, my thoughts returned more and more to the record and its astounding effects on me. The mystery of it gnawed at me, poking and prodding until I resolved to investigate further; to track down as much information as I could about Gustav Lang and his powerful music.

The Internet was the obvious place to start looking. If anyone knew about Lang and his music, that’s where they’d be. A search for Gustav Lang yielded plenty of hits, mostly about obscure Germans, none of whom were musicians but as I skimmed through the hundreds of results I noticed a reference to ‘Number 4’ in a newsgroup posting.

There was very little context to the message although it did mention the piano. I was almost convinced it was referring to either Holst or Mahler, both of which almost certainly wrote some sort of fourth piece of music but despite my reservations I emailed the author. Uncertain of what to say, I kept it brief, stating simply that I had Gustav Lang’s Piece Number 7 and that I was looking for other collectors.

The next day I received a reply, containing a single word – Reaction?

Uncertain precisely what he wanted to know, I replied with a description of the effect the record had on me.

I didn’t get a reply for several days and I thought I had answered the question wrong, but then I received another email with more questions about the record. After five or six emails the questions turned to me. What was my name? Where did I live? Who did I work for? Ignorant of Internet scams and identity theft I blindly handed out my personal information, convinced that this person, who signed himself simply as E, held the key to Gustav Lang’s music.

As we exchanged emails I found myself needing to listen to the record again. Partly to answer some of E’s questions but I think also because I was beginning to doubt what I’d heard, doubt the power of the music. When I got the disc out to play it again I half expected it to be blank on both sides, the groove simply melted away, but the music was still there; still just as powerful, although my body seemed to grow more resistant to the music each time I heard it.

I was playing the record when I received an invitation from E to meet up. I was to meet him later that day on platform 9 of the Baker Street Underground station. Three hours later I was sitting on the platform clutching a copy of The Times as instructed, waiting for the mysterious E to arrive.

Seven trains had pulled noisily into the station, disgorged their passengers then filled up on new arrivals before whining off into the darkness and there was still no sign of E. I was beginning to think I’d been sent on a wild goose chase or that he’d seen me sitting there with my newspaper and backed out of our arrangement.

The next train was five minutes away and the platform was empty when I heard the steady click of footsteps in the corridor leading to the platform. The footsteps paused for a second before a young Goth girl, all panda eyes and torn lace, ambled into view and headed up the platform away from me without a second glance.

I sat there as the platform filled with tourists and exhausted Londoners on their way home from the office. A low mumbling filled the air until the clattering of another train drowned it out and everyone shuffled eagerly towards the edge of the platform.

As the train pulled off I resolved to wait another ten minutes and then head back to my flat. I began reading the front page of The Times for the third time when I became aware of someone standing next to me. It was the Goth girl and she was smiling.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hi.”

She turned away and headed towards the exit, “Come on, let’s go.”

 

“I’m sorry about the cloak and dagger bullshit. There’s some weird fuckers looking for this stuff.”

We were sitting in a smoke filled pub just round the corner from the station.

I laughed, “Don’t I know it.”

The girl, Emma, added another blast of smoke to the air and looked at me, “I take it you’ve met Daniel?”

The surprise must have shown on my face.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

“He tried to kill me and steal my record.”

“Shit, now that’s fucked up.”

“Do you know him?”

“He’s obsessed. Doesn’t even have an original, just heard one at a party or something. He hassled me about mine for months. Until an old boyfriend worked him over, threw him under a bus.”

“That was your boyfriend?”

Emma nodded, “And he’ll do the same to you if I need him to.”

I held up my hands, “Whoa, don’t worry, you won’t have that problem with me. I just want some information. Any information really.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

I sipped my beer, “You’ve got a record though?”

“Yup, Number 9. Desire.”

“Desire?”

“Yes, they all have names, at least they do now. Someone has made up titles for them, I’m not sure who but as far as I know it wasn’t Lang. Yours is Loss.”

“That makes sense.”

“That’s what I thought. The loss of your mother’s a pretty obvious memory to key into.”

“Is that what the music does? Key into memories?”

“That’s how I describe it. A lot of music triggers memories; whether it’s of sitting in a dingy pub listening to Martha and the Muffins or standing in church singing carols with your family.”

“So Desire…”

Emma grinned, her panda eyes sparkling, “Yup. It does exactly what you’d expect. And no, I’m not going to play it to you.”
I smiled and hastily swallowed down some more of my beer.

“So how many of them are there?”

“Ten. We think.”

“Who has the first one?”

“No one as far as I know. Number three is the earliest. Numbers four, eight and ten are both missing as well.”

“Have you heard any others?”

“Nah, I’m not that serious about this stuff. I only replied to your email because I was bored.”

I stared at my drink, silently thanking the gods for making sure she was bored that particular day.

“Have you met any of the other owners?” I asked.

“At the Gustav Lang convention you mean?”

“What? There’s a convention?”

Emma started cackling, leaving me wincing.

“Nah, I’m just messing with you. I know one other guy, he lives in Birmingham. We met up once. He told me everything I know about Gustav and his records.”

“So what do you know about Gustav?”

“He’s German; no big surprise there I guess. Born before World War II, rumour has it he sided with the bad guys. As far as anyone knows the pieces were written during the war but no one’s sure when the recordings were made. They seem a lot newer than that. After the war he just vanished. Geoff’s pretty sure he didn’t die but that’s about it really.”

“Geoff?”

“The guy in Birmingham. I only know him as Geoff. He’s really into this stuff, not the psycho that Daniel is but still pretty hardcore.”

I didn’t hesitate, “Can I meet him?”

“Saturday, ten o’clock. I’ll give you the address. Take your record, he’ll want to listen to it.”

“He knows I’m coming?”

Emma nodded, “He wants to meet you. He’s the one who fed me all those questions.”

 

The address in question was Geoff’s tiny one bedroom terraced house. He was less cautious than Emma, either because she’d given me the green light or because his excessive bodyweight precluded stalkers. He opened the door wearing a faded, but clean, Star Trek t-shirt. Two bare feet poked out from tattered blue jeans.

The front door opened into a sliver of a hallway. Two doors led off to the right and a steep flight of stairs lay hidden behind a thick macramé curtain. Geoff eased his considerable bulk down the hallway and I followed, trying not to hit the walls with the steel record case I was carrying.

We moved into his living room and a wave of stale air washed over me. The room was lined with shelves containing hundreds of comics, probably thousands. Each one was bagged with a board and labels on the shelves marked the progress of the alphabet across the room. The floor was covered with twenty or thirty stacks of comics, most of them bagged as well. Even the ceiling was covered. Geoff had pinned what were presumably the peak of his collection to the polystyrene tiles and created a dazzling multi-coloured art show in the process. Geoff stood proudly next to a pair of thick green curtains. He must have misread my shocked expression.

“Impressive huh?”

I nodded, unwilling to risk saying anything.

For a moment I expected Geoff to pull back the curtains to reveal The Great and Powerful Oz but he didn’t. Instead, he spent a couple of minutes explaining about Mylar comic bags, eBay, acid free boards and the importance of golden age comics as an art form but the disinterest must have shown on my face.

“Anyway. That’s not why you’re here. Did you bring the record?”

I set down the record case and flicked it open, “Yes.”

Geoff’s eyes widened as I handed him the record. He peered at the writing on the label.

“Twenty quid you say?”

“Yeah, he didn’t know what he had. Neither did I really. I take it that’s a good price.”

He snorted, “Frak yeah, I paid over three thousand for mine and that was a bargain. Someone in the US paid fifteen thousand dollars for Piece Number 3.”

Instantly I regretted handing over the record.

“Can I listen to it on my own?”

I hesitated, wondering which comic I should take hostage to make sure I got it back.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to run off with it or scratch it or anything.”

Reluctantly, I agreed to his request.

Geoff grinned, “Wicked. I’ll play it upstairs if that’s okay?”

I nodded.

“Cool, grab a comic from that pile if you want,” he said, heading out of the room.

I looked in the direction he’d indicated. There was a rag-tag collection of heavily worn comics stacked unevenly in the corner of the room. I toyed with the idea of pulling down one of the older Issue 1’s from the ceiling but decided against it.

There was a clatter of beads and I heard Geoff trudge slowly up the stairs.

I looked around for somewhere to sit. There was a brown armchair that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the seventies but it was covered in piles of comics. The only other seating was a low stool next to the window and a stack of what appeared to be Japanese comics.

The floor above my head creaked and a few moments later I heard a few soft notes from a piano as the record began to play. I moved across to the stool and sat down. Trying to think of anything but the music coming from upstairs, I grabbed a nearby copy of Amazing Spiderman and flicked through it looking at the adverts for Sea Monkeys and pet rocks.

Geoff must have played the record several of times, it was almost half an hour before he reappeared at the door. His face was pale and there was a slight sheen of sweat covering his forehead. He tenderly handed record back to me, shifted the stacks of comics from the armchair and sat down. The cushion sagged dramatically and for a moment I thought it was going to dump him onto the floor but the springs held. He sat there for several minutes, breathing heavily.

Eventually he rubbed his arm across his forehead and said, “Wow.”

“That’s what I thought. Once I’d finished throwing up.”

“Well, at least we know it’s authentic.”

I nodded, “That’s something to be grateful for, I guess.”

“You can listen to mine if you like, it’s called Joy. Number 6.”

I hesitated, torn between wanting to listen to another of the remarkable pieces of music and not wanting to feed my addiction any more than I had to.

“No, I’m really just here to find out about Lang.”

Geoff seemed to relax a little and settled back in the chair, “So what do you want to know?”

“Anything, really. Emma told me a few bits but not much.”

Geoff grinned, “Ah, Emma. Desire. And I’m not just talking about the record either.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Ah, Lang, right. Well, he was born just after the First World War. He apparently had some musical talent because when the Second World War broke out he ended up composing music instead of getting shot at. As far as we know he wrote ten pieces over the next thirty odd years. As well as yours there’s Love, Anger and Joy. And Emma’s Desire of course.”

“No one knows where the others are?”

“No. I thought they’d all been found but I guess not, maybe Number 1 is still out there somewhere.”

Geoff’s eyes took on a dreamy look.

“What’s Number 1 called?”

“I’ve no idea. The names aren’t official. The first person to recognise what it is names the record. It’s sort of a tradition.”

“So who found the records?”

“All sorts of people, all over Europe. Number 3, Anger, was the first one, some Spanish woman found it. She sold it on Ebay last year. Mine was the second as far as I know, ended up in the hands of a dealer who sold it to me. They all appeared on market stalls or car boot sales. Nobody selling them knew what they were worth, probably hadn’t even played them, so they all went for a few quid, one guy paid a penny for his. Word got around pretty quick though and prices went through the roof. I was lucky to get mine for as little as I did.”

“But why did they take so long to appear?”

“Who knows? Maybe his employers didn’t let him release them.”

“Why did he write them in the first place?”

“No idea.”

“Someone must know though.”

“Maybe, he’s pretty secretive.”

“So how did you find out when he composed the records?”

“Piece Number 3 came with a list of some sort. I’ve not seen it, the American has it locked away in a vault somewhere but apparently it has ten dates on it, with the same handwriting as the records.”

“How old are the records themselves then? Surely they aren’t from the Second World War.”

“No, they’re definitely a lot newer than that. The first one turned up about four years ago. Yours is the first new one for over two and a half years.”

“But, I’d heard of Gustav Lang years ago, he’s an urban myth in the music industry.”

“Uh huh, there’s always been rumours about him, but no one believed them until the records appeared. They might not even be his for all we know, maybe it’s some big practical joke.”

I stared at Geoff, “You don’t think so though?”

Slowly, he shook his head, “No. I don’t. And I don’t think you do either.”

I looked down at the record in my hand and waited for my rational side to accept defeat.

“I thought not,” said Geoff. ”No one who has a record does. Even Emma believes and she doesn’t take any of this seriously.”

“I tried not to.”

Geoff laughed softly, “I knew as soon as I heard about them I wanted to have them. All of them. That’s not going to happen though. I can’t afford the ones that have been found, and if the first one ever turns up, God knows how much that will be worth.”

I stared up at the ceiling and sighed, dozens of questions all fighting for attention in my head.

Geoff smiled, “Its infuriating isn’t it? The more you find out about this guy, the more questions there are.”

“So, where is he now? Is he dead?”

“Not as far as we know. Some genealogy guy tried tracing his family tree. He didn’t get very far, but he couldn’t find any record of his death.”

“He must be by now though, surely?”

Geoff hesitated.

“What is it?” I asked.

“There’s a guy in Germany who claims to know where he lives.”

“What?” I said, barely able to contain myself, “Who is he? How can I find him?”

Geoff looked startled, as though he was already regretting what he’d said.

I tried to calm myself down, not even sure myself why I’d become so. I closed my eyes and tried counting to ten. I got to three before I opened them again.

“Sorry. Look, I just…I’d really like to know more about Lang. I don’t really know why.”

Geoff looked unsure but said “It’s okay. I know how you feel, really I do.”

“Please, Geoff.”

Geoff grimaced, “I could take you I suppose.”

“It’d be better if I go on my own.”

Geoff shook his head slowly, “But…I found him first, he whined. He sounded like a spoiled child and it took a healthy dose of self control to keep my temper.

“Look, I’ll record everything he says and give you a copy. You’ll find out everything I do. I’ll let you pass it on to the rest of the collectors; you can even claim credit if you like. And if he tells me where Lang lives, or even where he used to live when he was alive, I’ll call you and you can come with me when I visit him. I’ll pay for your plane ticket. Go on, what do you say?”

The next day I was on a plane to Germany.

 

The man I was going to see, Henry Beauchamp, lived in an almost derelict suburb of Berlin. It took the taxi driver over an hour to find the street, eventually we had to resort to asking for directions and even when we got there I wasn’t sure he hadn’t just dumped me in the middle of nowhere and driven off, just to get the trip over with.

Beauchamp’s house was on a terrace, crushed between two boarded up husks. Half the roof was missing from one and the other was shedding its skin of bricks to reveal the skeletal house within; broad holes opened into darkness criss-crossed with rotting wood and there were clusters of bricks dotted amongst the weeds in the tiny front garden. Graffiti had been scrawled in thick white strokes across the boards covering the windows and one of them appeared to have been prised open then hastily propped back into place.

One of the top windows of Beauchamp’s house had been smashed and replaced by a board but by some miracle the rest had survived. The glass looked clean, but greying net curtains hung behind them all, blocking my view of the rooms inside. The door to number forty-seven had once been green but most of the paint had peeled away to reveal the blackness of rotting wood. Some sort of fungus was crawling up the side of the doorway, forcing its way into the cracked wood, and the glass panes in the door itself had long since been replaced with tattered sheets of black plastic.

I looked around. There was another taxi, parked a few houses away, its passenger silhouetted in the rear window. After a few seconds, it pulled away from the curb and moved slowly down the road. I turned and walked down the pathway towards Beauchamp’s house. As I approached the door, the air was filled with the harsh tang of urine.

Steeling myself, I thumped on the door. There was a scuttling sound from the house on the right but beyond that, nothing. I hammered on the door again, harder this time.

“I heard you the first time,” said a voice from just behind the door, “give an old man a chance.”

As soon as I heard his voice, I knew.

“My name’s Max, Max Gamb…”

“I know who you are.”

A door chain rattled and metal scraped against metal as a bolt was drawn back. Slowly the door swung open and Gustav Lang beckoned me into his house.

For the second time in two days, I found myself sitting in the lounge of a stranger’s house. This time however, the room was almost empty. The only items in the room were a faded red sofa and almost matching armchair with a small lamp standing next to it, a homemade wooden bookshelf scattered with a handful of battered paperbacks and a TV that looked as though it would be limited to a black and white picture, assuming it worked at all. The floor was covered with a green carpet. It was old and a little threadbare but clearly it had been vacuumed recently.

Lang himself was a surprise. Had I met him on the street, I would have put him at sixty, sixty-five at most, rather than almost ninety. His face was thin and surrounded by a thick mane of hair, still blonde despite his age. He was smartly dressed in a simple white shirt and black trousers, his shoes shined so that they gleamed slightly in the glow from the bare bulb that hung in the hallway. He walked with a slight limp but beyond that, he seemed in excellent health.

Once I’d made it inside the house he’d locked and bolted the door behind us, then he’d given my hand a firm shake and directed me towards the lounge while he fetched us both a coffee. I was surprised at his apparent hospitality. Even so, he’d barely said a word and I was convinced it was going to be difficult to get any information out of him but when he returned with our drinks, his mood seemed lighter and he smiled at me as he sat down in the armchair.

“So, Mr Gambino.”

“Please, call me Max.”

He nodded, “And you may call me Gustav.”

“Thank you. Is Henry Beauchamp here as well?” I asked, knowing the answer already.

Lang smiled and ignored the question, “You did not seem surprised to find me here.”

“In that case I must have hidden my surprise better than I thought.”

Lang laughed

“Does Geoff know who you are?”

“No. I do not think he even suspects. He did try to visit me but I was not ready to talk to him. We correspond rarely and always by email.”

The surprise must have shown on my face because he said, “Are you surprised such an old man is familiar with such a modern invention? How do you think I knew you were coming?”

“No I…” I glanced around the room.

“I have a neighbour across the street that has an Internet connection.”

I nodded my understanding and took another mouthful of coffee, “So Geoff told you about me?”

“Yes. He sent me your replies to his questions, asked a few of mine in return. In fact, I suggested he send you to me. I think he was quite upset that you were going to get to talk to me in person. He was afraid that I might give away the location of the mysterious composer.”

I smiled, wondering what Geoff would think if he knew the truth about Henry Beauchamp.

“I promised I’d record what you said and give him a copy.”

“Ah, I see, and will you?”

“I think my recorder is broken.”

Lang roared with laughter, “Thank you.”

Lang drank down the last of his coffee and deposited the mug on the floor next to the armchair, “So where should I start? Myself? Or my music?”

I sipped my coffee, uncertain what to ask first. I was prepared to meet Henry Beauchamp, not Gustav Lang.

“Wherever you are most comfortable,” I said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to talk to you.”

Lang nodded, leant back in the armchair, and closed his eyes. I sat quietly watching the slow rise and fall of his chest. I began to wonder if he’d actually fallen asleep but eventually, he opened his eyes and looked at me.

“Well, I suppose we had better start at the beginning. Although I think you are probably only interested in the middle. Perhaps it will help explain why I did what I did. You may think of me as less of a monster if you know a little of my background.”

“Whatever you think is best,” I replied, not sure why I should think he was a monster.

“I was born in 1910.”

Unable to resist, I interrupted him immediately, “1910? But that would make you…”

“Old, yes.”

I knew then that he was lying. I wasn’t talking to Gustav Lang at all. He looked at me, waiting for me to say something but I held my tongue. Inside I was fighting with the disappointment at the man’s deception.

“I understand your surprise and I know how it must look, but that is the truth.”

“Fair enough. Please carry on,” I said, trying to hide my disbelief.

Lang’s English was excellent, with only a slight trace of a German accent, but he spoke slowly at first, as though he was struggling to find the right words.

“I was born in Berlin, my father was a baker there but he was killed during the First World War. With my father gone my mother took a job in a factory, leaving me in the care of my grandmother. She had a piano and from an early age, five or six I think, I had shown a great deal of interest in it. We could not afford formal lessons so my grandmother taught me to read music and to play. When she died we moved the piano to my mother’s house so that I could continue playing. I realise now that it was quite a sacrifice, my mother could have used the money from the sale of that piano to buy clothes or food. Sometimes I wish she had sold it, perhaps my life would have turned out better if she had.”

“When I became old enough I began working at the bakery, like my father, although at the time I had little interest in it. I was more interested in my music. I had a natural aptitude and quickly began playing pieces that were really quite complicated. It wasn’t long before I attempted to compose my own tunes. I had no real idea of the technical aspects of musical composition and those early pieces were naïve; long rambling concertos that had little structure or simplistic nursery rhymes that were essentially copies of already existing tunes with one or two minor changes.”

The words came more freely now, as though he were warming to his subject.

“I remained a conscientious worker though, not least because my mother relied on my income to feed and clothe us. I sometimes worked the night shift and early one morning, about half an hour before I was due to leave, one of the gas fired ovens exploded. Part of the factory collapsed and I was caught under the rubble. I was lucky, my leg was badly broken but three other men were killed. I think that explosion probably saved my life.”

“I was young, but the damage was severe and I was left with a dramatic limp. I could not work for several weeks and my mother was forced to take a second job just so that we could survive. I am ashamed to say I barely noticed her sacrifice. I spent most of my time complaining about the pain and wishing I was able to practise at my beloved piano.”

“Eventually I returned to work but it was not until much later, after my mother’s death, that I realised how much she had given up during my life and how much I owed her.”

“Gradually, I earned the trust of the owners of the factory. I was promoted to supervisor and it was made clear that I had a bright future ahead of me there. Several years later I was still waiting patiently for the current general manager to retire when war broke out.”

“The bakery was kept open to supply food for the city and the soldiers at the training camps. Most of the workers joined the army and were replaced with women but because of my injury and my experience running the factory I was forced to stay. You may find it hard to believe but I was actually disappointed. I wanted the opportunity to fight for my country as my father had; to die as he had if necessary. It was my duty as a German citizen.”

“At first the war seemed strangely distant. I knew people whose family were fighting in the war of course, the women in the factory all had husbands and sons in the army but it did not seem to affect me directly until the bombing began.”

“The first air raid came in August, 1940 and it was the first time I was truly terrified. Even the explosion at the factory paled into insignificance next to the death and destruction raining down on us from the air. My mother and I had never even considered what would happen during an air raid. That first night we huddled under the kitchen table as my mother tried to drive away our terror by singing to me just as she had when I was a child.”

I watched as the old man gazed out of the window into the past. It was growing dark outside but I knew he wasn’t looking at the dusk shrouded German streets I could see. A solitary tear formed in the corner of one eye and rolled down his cheek. I looked away, drinking down the remains of my near-cold coffee to give him time to compose himself.

The progress of the tear seemed to pull him back to the present and he rubbed his cheek and coughed.

“I am sorry,” he said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair.

I held up my hands, trying to put him at ease, “Don’t worry. It’s difficult for you, I understand.”

He looked at me for a few seconds and for a moment I thought he was going to stop talking but instead he took a deep breath, as though steeling himself to continue with his story and said “On December 14th, 1940, a bomb hit our house, almost completely destroying it. No one could tell me why my mother had still been in the house. The sirens had given her plenty of warning.”

“The loss of my mother, our house and my piano all but destroyed me. I began drinking heavily, often spending my nights sleeping rough, praying the bombs would take me too. I lost my job and my anger grew, along with my hatred of the Allies and I railed against them, screaming obscenities at the bombers as they flew over the city.”

I grew uncomfortable. How must he feel, even now, baring his soul to someone whose grandparents had fought and killed his countrymen? Lang didn’t notice my discomfort, or if he did he made no mention of it.

“My frustration at not being able to fight became almost uncontrollable and I spent my weekends standing outside the recruitment centres, begging them to let me join. At first they humoured me, but after several weeks, their patience wore thin and I was forced to stay away. I must have attracted the attention of someone though, a few weeks later I was contacted by a member of the SS and ‘invited’ to take part in a special project.”

“I leapt at the chance of course, hoping they were going to turn me into some sort of super soldier. Of course the reality was much more mundane, at least I thought it was at first. Would you like another coffee?”

I started at the sudden shift in the conversation, “Pardon? Sorry, no I’m fine. Thank you.”

“Well, just let me know if you get thirsty.”

“Sure,” I said, willing him to continue and relieved when he did.

“They wanted me to compose music.”

I shifted forward in my seat; this was what I’d been waiting for. At least I hoped it was.

“What for?”

The old man took another deep breath and rubbed the tip of his nose, “You must understand; I did not realise that Germany had begun bombing London just a day or two before the attacks on Berlin began. It was not until much later that I heard about Germany’s euthanasia programme or any of the other horrors the Nazi’s inflicted upon their own people. I was still angry, furious. My hatred was destroying me. I had to find an outlet for my anger or it would have cost me my life. The project, ‘Aktion B7’ as it was called, was that outlet.”

I nodded, “I understand, really I do. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live through that time, for either side.”

Lang still seemed unsure but he continued anyway, “My job, along with several other young composers, was to try to harness music as a means of controlling the public, both at home and abroad. Not an easy task, so we started with the most basic emotion of them all.”

“Fear?” I asked.

“Exactly. It is relatively easy to use music to evoke fear, or at least a sense of unease. Each composer had their own style, for my part I favoured long, haunting melodies punctuated by discordant orchestral interludes. The brutality of the music matched my state of mind.”

“We had some success at first and the project found favour with the German High Command. We were treated well, given rooms in the building we worked in and three meals a day. The SS used our music, in combination with darkened rooms and flashing lights, to disorientate prisoners of war in an attempt to get them to give us information. I believe it worked, at least in some cases.”

It was beginning to get dark and Lang reached over and flicked on the lamp nestled in the corner next to his armchair. A soft yellow light chased away the encroaching shadows.

“The real breakthrough came several months later, at the end of 1941. Most of the composers on the project were off, taking a couple of days rest ready for the New Year. I stayed on and continued working on my latest piece.”

“When I awoke on December 31st, I was drenched in sweat. My head was burning, even as I lay in bed shivering. I also had a new piece running through my head. Despite my fever I had to get my new composition down, had to capture it before my sickness drove it from my mind. I forced myself out of bed, dressed and stumbled downstairs to the music rooms.”

“I spent the day battling my subconscious and the fever that threatened to overwhelm me but finally, after nine hours, I was finished. That night I collapsed into bed, relieved that I had captured the music that had somehow sprung fully formed into my mind but as I drifted into unconsciousness I felt an unfamiliar feeling of dread, gnawing at my stomach.”

“When I woke the next day, the first day of 1942, I could not remember actually writing the piece or what it would sound like if it were played; the day was lost in a sweat soaked haze. The fever was gone, along with the dread, and apart from a desperate thirst that I struggled to quench throughout the day, I felt fine.”

“Four days later, when my piece was played by an orchestra for the first time, that feeling of dread returned, stronger than ever. I would have done well to take notice of it.”

The old man looked around the room, searching for words, “Chilling,” he said at last, “That is the only way I can describe it. I felt it almost as soon as the music began to play. My blood ran cold and I felt myself shudder. The other men in the room felt it as well, I could tell. They became uneasy, uncomfortable. Even the Commandant, a man who was as ruthless as he was efficient, was affected. I glanced at him towards the end of the piece and although his face was emotionless, his eyes were filled with terror.”

“So number one is Fear.” I said.

Lang nodded, “Or Terror if you would prefer. Like my earlier work the music was harsh, percussive and discordant, almost brutal in its intensity. It was used by the SS in interrogations, much as our earlier music had been. It provoked such an intense reaction from many prisoners that it became a key part of the interrogation process and I was declared a national hero, albeit one kept locked away from the public to prevent knowledge of our work reaching the enemy.”

“The focus of Aktion B7 switched to me, to the exclusion of all the other composers and slowly they were removed from the programme. I heard rumours they had gone missing, rather than simply returning home to their families. Several months passed and I had still not managed to recreate my success. I had a new goal now, more difficult than simple fear, and it appeared it was beyond me.”

“As time passed, I became uneasy. The Commandant was becoming less tolerant of my lack of success. There was talk of a special project under the supervision of Himmler and it was made clear that failure on my part would not be received well by the High Command. I considered trying to leave the programme but the missing composers weighed on my mind and I forced myself to continue working. It took me four months to recreate that first success.”

“The birth of that second piece was just as painful as the first, but in a different way. It took several weeks for me to craft the tune. Each note had to dragged onto the page and at times I thought it might never be finished.”

There was a pause and I felt I should fill it with something, “I’m glad it was.”

A shadow passed over Lang’s face, “I am not.”

“Why?” I asked.

The man hesitated. We were clearly moving into darker territory; places he was reluctant to go. I pushed harder, knowing I was being selfish but carrying on anyway. “Please, I know you want to tell me.”

The man looked at me with sorrow in his eyes, “And you want to know.”

I nodded.

Several minutes passed before he spoke again and when he did, he spoke so quietly I had to strain to hear him. “It was completely different to the first piece, although its effects were just as pronounced. An intricate piano melody echoed throughout the tune, leading the ear through a complex landscape of sound. That melody was underpinned by many subtle layers of string-work and I have often thought it my best work.”

He paused, staring at the floor as he rubbed his forehead with the tips of his fingers.

“It left almost everyone who listened to it disorientated and passive, open to suggestion. It proved an excellent way to pacify large groups of people as well as individuals.”

“Control,” he said, a frown creasing his brow, “would be an apt title. We simply called it Piece Number 2. The abortive attempts I had made earlier, along with those of the other composers, were quickly forgotten in the heat of success. I had achieved exactly what they wanted, a way to control large groups of people.”

“The first field tests took place in Poland in the spring of 1942. Over the next two and a half years, hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions, were played recordings of that piece in the days before they died.”

“What was it used for? Interrogations?”

Lang shook his head.

A few seconds later, I understood.

I looked up and found Lang, and I knew it was Lang, staring at me. His eyes were focussed somewhere else, perhaps on the crimes he felt he had committed. The pain he felt was suddenly clear, etched into the lines on his face.

It was perhaps ten minutes before he spoke again, and when he did he simply carried on from where he had left off.

“Once it became clear I had been successful, the project was shut down and I was abandoned. I was thrown out of my rooms and warned never to talk about the work I had done on Aktion B7. It was a task made easy by the fact that I had no friends but I still wondered whether I might one day find that the SS had decided to ensure my silence by more direct methods.”

“I was back on the street, but my self-destructive tendencies had left me and I fought desperately to find a job. A month later, my meagre savings almost gone, I managed to use my experience to land a position working the nightshift at a factory. Most of my pay went on rent, but my landlady had a piano and liked to sing. I would accompany her and in return she let me use it to compose.”

“At first I was angry at having been abandoned and my next piece reflected that.”

“That’s the one we know as Anger?” I asked.

“Yes, that is correct. Even though I only had a piano to work with, I managed to create something that reflected and amplified the intensity of my feelings. As the war dragged on and it became clear that Germany was losing, my mood darkened. I wrote one more piece before the end of the war, Despair would be an appropriate title.”

Despair was a new title, “No one has found that one yet.” I said.

“No, I have kept that one to myself.”

It seemed a wise decision.

“What about the other pieces?”

“After the war I found work in another bakery. At first I was happy, but gradually I began to hear stories of what had happened during the war, and my part in it, and I stopped composing. I no longer had any enthusiasm for the piano and although I would occasionally play for my landlady I never played for myself. When she died, I stopped completely.”

“What made you start again?”

Lang rubbed his chin, “I could not help myself, it seemed to be inevitable. Every couple of years I would find a piano and try to write something new. Often I was unsuccessful, and I never managed to recreate anything as perversely beautiful as that second piece, but sometimes I managed to capture the essence of what I was feeling.”

“How many did you write?”

“Including the ones I wrote during the war? Ten. The last one, Life, was written over thirty years ago. I tried many times to write another but I guess my creativity had its limits.”

“Life?”

“Yes, that is the name it has been given I believe.”

“But I thought it was missing?”

Lang frowned, “No. Not at all, I believe a man called Daniel owns it. He found it several years ago.”

The thought of Daniel owning one of the records left me feeling sick but it explained why he was so desperate to get hold of another one.

“Are the first two pieces out there too?”

He shook his head, “No, I have my own recordings but I felt they were unsuitable for public consumption.”

“You have copies of them all?”

“Yes. They are upstairs.”

I knew I had to listen to them. I had thought that knowing the story behind the records would cure me of my addiction; instead it had fed it, made it stronger.

Lang answered my question before I asked it, “No, I no longer own a record player and in any case I prefer not to listen to them.”

Despair washed over me.

“But…why bring me here then?”

Lang stood up and walked over to the window and stared out into the darkness, “I understand your disappointment. You have come a long way but I meant you to hear my story, not my music.”

“Why?” I asked, trying to hide my frustration. “Why tell your story now?”

“I am an old man; too old. I have outstayed my welcome.”

I started to protest but he held up his hands, “I have. I do not deserve to be here and it is nearly time for me to pay for my crimes.”

“You weren’t to know.”

“That makes no difference. My ignorance makes me no less guilty. I was given a gift and I abused it, turned it against my fellow man.”

“So why release the records? In fact, why keep them at all?”

Lang turned back towards me, a grim smile on his face, “I am just a man; a weak, arrogant man. Many times I resolved to rid the world of my music but each time I stopped. I could not bring myself to destroy my work; I had nothing else to show for my life. Eventually I convinced myself that it had value, that the best way to atone for my sins was to give the world the music.”

“I made recordings of all ten pieces. I pressed a handful of copies of each. Most of them I kept myself but I sent out seven of them. Some went to charity shops, I sold one or two of them directly and even posted one anonymously to a dealer in England. I believe you own it now.”

“Loss?”

“Yes, that is it. My young wife was killed in a car accident and that was the result.”

It was then that I realised how much I had yet to learn about this tired old man. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Thank you, but it was a long time ago.”

I waited what seemed like a respectable amount of time before asking, “But why send them out secretly? If you wanted the world to hear your music, why not find a record company? You could be rich.”

Lang shook his head, “I do not deserve riches and I was still too ashamed to admit what I had done, and a little afraid of what might happen to me if I did. Still, I could not stand the thought that the music would vanish along with me when I died. I have no living relatives or heirs so I decided to distribute them anonymously.”

“And now they’re out there.”

“Indeed, for better or worse, they are out there.”

“Don’t you wish that more people could hear them?”

“No,” he said, almost laughing, “I am happy that a few people have heard them and that you know my story. That is enough.”

There was relief in Lang’s voice and I think I finally understood why he had opened up to me.

“What do you want me to do with your story?”

Lang shrugged, “Do whatever you see fit. All I ask is that you do not reveal where I live to the other collectors. I have no desire to tell my story more than once. I hope I can trust you to respect my wishes.”

I nodded, “You have my word. What about the music?”

Lang moved back to his chair and sat down, “What happens to my music will happen whether I want it to or not. Perhaps if you publish my story someone will release the music as well.”

I wondered if I would be that someone and from the way Lang looked at me I knew he was thinking the same thing.

The lamp flickered, as though to remind me how late it was getting. I checked my watch, it was already past ten and I still had to find my way back to my hotel.

“I should be going, but I would like to come back tomorrow if I may. There’s still so much about your life you haven’t told me.”

Lang looked surprised, “Of course, if you wish. I would like that very much but I should warn you, the life of a baker is less interesting than it sounds.”

I laughed and the tension in the air dispersed, “Thank you, I will come tomorrow afternoon then, around three?”

Lang nodded as he led me back along the hallway to the door, “Excellent. I shall look forward to it.”

“So will I.”

It was raining outside and a man was standing across the other side of the road, huddled under an umbrella as he struggled to light a cigarette.

Just before Lang closed the door, I stopped and turned back. I looked into his face and once again began to doubt he was the man he claimed to be.

“One last question? Are you really Gustav Lang?”

He nodded, a subtle smile on his lips.

“But…”

“Music can be wondrous, Max. If I can only teach you one thing, I hope it is that.”

There was a click as the door closed, followed by the rattle of a security chain.

 

I woke early the next day, my head filled with strange dreams of aircraft dropping pianos into mass graves. I lay in bed, trying to find a way to convince Lang to give me copies of the rest of the records. I was still struggling to decide what to do with Lang’s story but I did know that I had to own the rest of the music.

When the time came, I found a taxi driver who knew the road I was looking for and this time the journey took less than forty-five minutes.

I could see the lights on the police car flashing almost as soon as we turned the corner onto Lang’s street. I considered asking the taxi to carry on past but I had to know what had happened. The driver dropped me at the curb and I could see him peering towards the house as he drove away.

A policeman was examining the front door of Lang’s house. The wooden frame was splintered inwards.

There was a second policeman standing on the path to the house and he held up his hand as I approached the gate. He was reluctant to tell me what was happening but once I’d explained that I knew Mr Beauchamp and had visited the house yesterday he said something I couldn’t make out into his radio and asked me to wait. A few minutes later a tall man in a dark suit walked slowly out of the house. He’d almost reached the gate when an ambulance rolled slowly to a stop alongside me.

The man introduced himself as Detective Nagel and asked me how I knew Henry Beauchamp.

“I’m a record producer,” I said, reaching into my pocket and retrieving a business card. “Mr Beauchamp recorded some music many years ago and we were discussing the possibility of releasing it in England.”

Nagel nodded, “You were here yesterday?”

“Yes, I left at about ten fifteen last night. Can you tell me what’s happened, is Henry alright?”

Two paramedics stepped out of the ambulance. One moved to the back of the vehicle and opened the doors while the other approached the policeman standing at the gate and started talking to him in German. No one seemed in much of a hurry.

Detective Nagel lit a cigarette while he considered my question.

“Someone broke into Mr Beauchamp’s house in the early hours of this morning. We believe Mr Beauchamp interrupted the intruder while he was searching the house.”

“Is he okay? Henry, I mean.”

The detective looked at me and shook his head, “I’m afraid Mr Beauchamp was badly beaten. He seems to have tried to crawl for help but his injuries were too severe. By the time a neighbour noticed the damage to the door and went inside to investigate, he had already died.”

I stared at the gravel path, suddenly intensely aware that the detective would be studying my reaction. I hope the shock I was feeling was visible on my face.

The paramedics pushed past me as they wheeled a trolley towards the house.

“Mr…Gambino,” Nagel said, checking my business card. “Do you know if Mr Beauchamp had any family?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I mean, no, he didn’t have any family. He told me that yesterday.”

Nagel made a note of my response in his notebook and slipped my business card into the top pocket of his coat.

“Are you staying in Berlin at the moment, Mr Gambino?”

“Yes, at the Palace Hotel on Budapester Straße. Room 117”

“Ah yes, very nice.”

I nodded.

Nagel said something to the policeman by the gate. The paramedics had reached the house and were struggling to manoeuvre the unwieldy trolley through the narrow doorway. I caught a glimpse of a dark shape, laying on the floor behind them.

“Mr Gambino, do you know of anyone who might have wanted to do this?”

I looked back at Nagel. He was watching me intently, pen poised above his notebook.

I opened my mouth to tell him that I had no idea who might kill Henry, then stopped as I realised I knew exactly who was responsible for his death.

“Daniel Sung. At least I think that’s his real name.”

The detective was unprepared for this development and grew even more surprised as I explained about the records, Daniel’s visit to my house and his subsequent disappearance. I was about to mention the man who had been watching the house when I’d arrived the day before when a voice crackled over Nagel’s radio.

He acknowledged the call, then said to me, “I’m sorry, Mr Gambino, could you wait here? I would like to discuss Mr Sung with you further.”

I nodded, staring blankly at the ground as I tried to come to terms with Lang’s murder.

“Thank you.”

Nagel had turned and was walking towards the house when I called after him, “Detective Nagel?”

“Yes?”

“Was anything stolen?”

“We’re not sure, a cupboard upstairs was broken into and there appears to be a box missing but beyond that, it’s difficult to say.”

I stared up at the top floor of the house.

“Records.”

Nagel frowned, “Pardon?”

“It was the records,” I said. “He took the records.”

 

By the time I returned to England, the newspapers were full of stories about Gustav Lang’s death and the wondrous power of his music.

 

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About Philip Harris

Philip Harris was born in England but now lives in Vancouver, Canada where he works for a large video game developer. Not content with creating imaginary worlds for a living, he spends his spare time indulging his love of writing. His non-fiction articles have appeared in such enigmatic magazines as EXE, WTJ and CGI. His fiction has been published in Peeping Tom, Dark Horizons, and Blood Samples. He has also worked as security for Darth Vader. You can find his website at: http://www.solitarymindset.com and follow him on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/SolitaryMindset