When Margaret, her closest friend and fellow violinist in an amateur expat-orchestra, is garroted with a violin string, Emily is devastated. She also fears the official investigative team is leaping to “random anti-American violence” as its conclusion.
Emily delves into her friend’s private life for clues. She discovers Margaret was involved in a campaign against the traditional practice of female genital mutilation. Could that be behind her murder?
She risks a visit to the village where Margaret’s anti-cutting activities were centered. A crude and threatening drawing appears in her purse soon afterwards. When the Peace Corps volunteer in that village is also murdered, Emily is certain her own life is in danger.
Emily silently groaned when she heard that annoying tap-tap-tap of the baton on the music stand. She braced herself for the conductor’s standard lecture about watching her instead of gluing their eyes to their music. “I’ll decide when we get faster or slower. I’ll decide when we get louder or softer. And. You. Won’t. Know. Un. Less. You. Watch. Me. I honestly don’t know how many more ways I can say it.”
Give it a rest, Emily thought, smiling at her unintended pun. Look up, look down, look up, look down. It’s hard. By the time Amanda finished scolding, though, Emily had tuned her flattened A-string—for the time being, anyway. She couldn’t believe how frequently the heat and humidity in Senegal wreaked havoc on her violin strings. Good thing this was just an amateur—very amateur—orchestra for English-speaking expatriates.
“Let’s take it again from measure 195. Start very loud, sforzando,”—Amanda practically shouted as she spread her arms wide—“and then,” she whispered as she crouched, “get really really soft right away. It’s the sudden contrast that’s important—especially you horns—and also, we’re going to take it a little faster. It’s marked Vivace. Lively, folks, lively. The adagio is later. Then you can go slow.”
On the podium, she raised her arms high and looked at her flock. Emily thought her long thin nose, echoing a similarly proportioned body, was made for looking down on others. All the musicians got ready in their own way: violins and violas under chins, cellos between legs, horns and woodwinds to mouths.
As she raised the baton to the top of its arc, Amanda inhaled audibly; but before she had a chance to lower it, in that moment as full of anticipation as the one between the trapeze artist’s leaving one set of hands and arriving safely at another, a phone rang. The baton fell to Amanda’s side.
Bruce, the Regional Security Officer at the American Embassy, was the only one with a mobile phone at rehearsals; and only the official “emergency line” with SOS in Morse Code as the ring tone, not his personal one with Duke of Earl. Emily supposed it was in case the world as they knew it was about to come to an end and there was something Bruce could actually do about it. But it had rung once before during rehearsal and that time the world remained exactly where it belonged.
Maybe Bruce hadn’t practiced his flute solo coming up at measure 400 and he’d asked his wife to call before he actually had to play it in front of everyone.
He opened the phone and ran off the stage as the rest of them assumed the ready position again, then started with the sforzando at measure 195. It went along pretty well, but Bruce was back by measure 210, shouting, “Stop, stop, everyone. Sorry. Gotta clear the building. Security alert.”
“You can’t be serious?” said Amanda.
“Very serious. Right away. I mean it,” said Bruce in his Regional Security Officer voice, emphasis on the “Officer.”
“I suppose that’s the price of practicing at the American Cultural Center,” said the principal cellist, an Aussie businessman who could actually raise one eyebrow independently of the other.
“Let’s move it. Vivace, extremely vivace.” Bruce was shooing everyone off stage with windmill arms, making like the captain of the ship who’s valiantly going to be the last to leave. “Just leave your instruments on your chairs. Sorry, Amanda.”
Emily, perhaps more skittish than the rest at the thought of an emergency far from home, was one of the first to leave her instrument as instructed and descend the steps on the right side of the stage. A few placed their instruments into the cases they’d left on the red plush seats in the audience, but only one of the brass players, a trumpet-playing American School high school senior, was bold enough to stop and clean the spit out of his instrument. Pretty quickly, though, everyone had gone up the mildly-inclined seating area and out the door at the rear.
In the sultry air outside, fanning themselves with hands or sheet music, they gravitated into groups that were more-or-less nationality-specific, though in some cases instrument loyalty trumped country of origin. Americans were the largest contingent in the orchestra so they had subgroups: a Foreign Service clump, a business-person clump, and an American School clump. There were also Brits, Aussies, Canadians, and Senegalese.
Not surprisingly, the chatter in Emily’s group—American Foreign Service—was at a level of high anxiety, one person interrupting the next with questions, speculations, or worries. Emily found herself getting more nervous as she listened. Meanwhile, someone from the American School group shouted over to Bruce’s stand-mate in the British group to ask if Bruce had said anything. “Did he let on whether it was all an exercise? Or is it for real?”
The clumps coalesced into one large group to hear the answer better. Pedestrians had to detour around them while staring at this bunch of mostly-white people, some carrying musical instruments, in the middle of the block. One woman, with a baby on her back and a child by the hand, carrying a tray of colorful plastic-ware on her head, plowed right through the middle of their assemblage as if they weren’t there.
“I have no inkling, but he seemed rather as surprised as the rest of us when his phone rang … and a bit frightened, too. I think he actually jumped. I don’t think it was a practice exercise, what you blokes call a fire drill.”
“A bomb threat, maybe?”
“You mean like the threat of his bombing during his solo?” said the math teacher at the American School.
An American oboist said, “Do you think we’re in danger? Should we move further away from the building?” He looked around for support. Only a few people budged. “Amanda, did he tell you anything?”
“No, nothing, but it must be real and important ’cause he knows I’d kill him if he interrupted the rehearsal for a drill. Maybe Tom is right. Let’s move a little further away.”
People started complaining more about the dust and sand from the Harmattan winds coming down from the Sahara than about the possibility of danger. A Canadian horn-player actually said she thought she’d go to her air-conditioned car for the duration when Bruce emerged from the building, flushed and sweaty. When asked what it had been about, he didn’t answer. He just announced—in a subdued voice, lacking the previous air of self-importance—that everyone could go back in.
Once inside, Bruce gathered his flute without a word and sped off. The rest stayed, though there seemed little enthusiasm for playing. Amanda tried to pep them up, describing the beauty of a particular passage or the drama of another. She even gave up on the Mendelssohn and switched to the Prokofiev, saying she thought “Peter and the Wolf ” would be fun and they could use a little fun; but her pep didn’t seem to catch on.
For Emily, the peppiest part of the post-evacuation interlude was the tête-à-tête she overheard between the violinists at the stand in front of her.
Sue, in a discreet whisper, said, “Do you think you could turn the page a little sooner, John?”
“Whatever you say. You’re the boss,” said John. Not a whisper. Not discreet.
“It’s just that—”
“I know what it is. You sit on the audience side of the stand so I turn the page and then try to catch up.”
Sue turned slowly to face him. “Sheesh, I didn’t make the rules, John. If you want to change your seat, speak to–”
“Never mind. Just nod when you’re ready for me to turn.” He concentrated on rosining his bow. Holding the little cake of hardened tree sap in his left hand, he drew his bow through it with his right hand, over and over again. There was no way that bow was going to slip on his strings.
Amanda must have heard the exchange, too. “Finished?” Amanda actually had her hands on her hips so the baton wiggled behind her back, as if she were trying to conduct the audience.
“Sorry,” said Sue.
“You know what? We’re all pretty tense and distracted. It’s been a tough night. Let’s just pack it in. Would you all help me put the seats and stands away backstage? They’re showing a movie here tomorrow morning and they’ve asked me to clear the decks.”
Over the grumbling and the hubbub, she added, “Next week we’re going to dig into the second movement of the Mendelssohn, and then we’ll spend time on the third movement, the adagio. It’s slow, but not easy. Quite the contrary. Practice hard to make up for leaving early tonight. It’s a good thing we build extra rehearsal time into our schedule like for snow days in Vermont schools.”
“A snowy day? Here? What can she be meaning?” asked Amat, the Senegalese percussionist.
* * *
Juli’s car and driver pulled up outside. She was the horn-playing wife of the Deputy Chief of Misssion, the number two guy in the Embassy, and her status was a reflection of his rank. Being treated as royally as her husband, she could have been pretty la-di-da, especially since she was a lithe, fair-skinned beauty with strawberry blonde hair and a honeyed Southern accent; but she wasn’t la, di, or da.
Their friend Margaret had once referred to them as the blonde Southern belle and the brunette Bronx bombshell. They still hadn’t found a suitable nickname for Margaret—Missouri Margaret? Svelte St. Louis sandy-hair?—but were having fun trying.
Emily’s husband was a much lower rank than Juli’s and State Department hierarchy was nothing if not precise, so the two women lived in different neighborhoods. Juli usually gave Emily a ride home, though, to save her walking to her car in the dark after rehearsal—and maybe also to be able to gossip right away before either had a chance to forget the juicy bits. There might be uncrossable lines between Juli and Emily because of their husbands’ ranks, but orchestra gossip was protocol-free.
“What in the world was that security alert all about, Jules? Has anything like that happened to you before?”
Juli recalled a few similar incidents in previous postings, but they were always during some anti-American fever, like during the Iranian hostage-taking. “What a terrible time that was. We were in Indonesia at the time and that’s another story—a long story for another time—but things aren’t nearly that bad now.”
“But just last week there was—”
“A little demonstration from time to time doesn’t count. You weren’t in the foreign service during the hostage crisis, so you don’t know what ‘bad’ feels like.”
Emily felt slightly less anxious. “Do you think you’ll find anything out from Lawrence when you get home?” Emily knew she was inching up to that uncrossable line.
“Sometimes he tells me these things, sometimes not. Right now most of our conversations are either about the gala next weekend—the President of Senegal is coming, you know, so it’s a very, very big deal—or Lawrence’s mom and the gossip in her neighborhood. Sublime and ridiculous.”
“If you do hear anything about tonight’s—”
“If I hear anything, you’ll be the first, sugah. Now how are your kids? Are the twins still vying for the title of cutest little girls in the EN-tire world? Is Chris deciding high school might actually turn out to not be the end of the world after all?”
Oops, thought Emily, maybe I went too far and forced Juli to change the subject. “They’re all fine. Thanks.”
For the rest of the ride, they dished about Bruce’s little-big-man routine, about John and Sue’s page-turning summit meeting, and about how fast Amanda was taking the Mendelssohn.
“Here we are. See you tomorrow at French class. Thanks for the lift, Jules. I really appreciate it—as always.”
“I figger if State insists on treating Lawrence and me like royalty, I can share some of my good fortune with my little Bronx bombshell buddy. See you in French class tomorrow.”
* * *
Pete was sprawled on the couch, long muscular legs on the coffee table, with his newspapers scattered around him, gin and tonic nearby. Normal, like every other Tuesday night after rehearsal. She put her violin down inside the door, then walked across the satisfyingly cool tiles to sit on one of the chairs facing Pete, looking up at the overhead fan and exhaling a deep sigh as she sank down.
Pete asked why she was home early. She stretched out the story with details like sforzando and vivace before getting to the actual evacuation.
That’s when he put down his newspaper and sat up straight.
“Bruce’s phone rang just as Amanda was raising the baton. S-O-S, S-O-S and he goes running off the stage, very agent, kind of scary. Then he’s all ‘I’m in charge here,’ bossing everyone around.”
“Was it a fire-drill?”
“Don’t know. Have you heard anything?”
“No, nothing at all.” He looked at his watch and shook his head. “No scuttlebutt about threats or unusual goings-on. But, then again, the security guys or political guys would be more likely to hear it than we would over in Admin. It only lasted ten minutes, you say?”
“About. Should I be scared? Should we all be scared?”
“Not yet. I’ll tell you when.”
His reaction was unnerving her. She’d expected him to brush it off, pooh-pooh her anxieties, tell her she was being like Chicken Little. “I’ll tell you when to be scared” was more concern than she’d expected. “But what could it be besides a bomb threat?”
“I’m sure I’ll hear something tomorrow.”
“If there’s any kind of real danger here, maybe we should pack up the kids and—”
“Calm down, calm down. I said I’ll find out tomorrow.”
“Will you tell me?”
“Depends. Maybe. But then,” and he smiled broadly, “I’d have to kill you.”
He stood up and hugged her in a me-Tarzan-you-Jane sort of way. “It’ll be okay, Em. Really.”
After a career in which her writing largely consisted of training manuals and memos, in which clarity was the holy grail, Carole is thrilled to be writing fiction and memoir. She lives in the beautiful and rural Hudson Valley of New York with her husband, and with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren just down the road apiece.
Carole gets around, having been to about 50 countries (so far), including eighteen months spent in Senegal, the setting for Deadly Adagio, while her husband was a Peace Corps Administrator. She has also been in several amateur orchestras, which is territory that, like a country, has its own language, customs, government, hierarchy, and sub-groups.