Chapter 51


    Chestnut Hill was an affluent neighborhood in the Northwest section of Philadelphia, originally part of the German Township laid out by Francis Daniel Pastorius. One of the original 'railroad suburbs,' the area contained a wide variety of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century residences designed by many of the most prominent Philadelphia architects.

    Before leaving Center City, Byrne had called ahead to schedule a time to meet with Christa-Marie. He was directed to Christa-Marie's attorney, a man named Benjamin Curtin. Reluctant at first, Curtin arranged to meet Byrne at the estate at one p.m.

    As Byrne turned down St. Andrews Road he saw the house for the second time in his life. He had not been back since the night of the murder.

    It was a massive, sprawling Tudor building with a circular driveway accented with cobblestones, a large gabled entrance. To the right, partially hidden by trees, was a stable, next to a pair of tennis courts. A high wrought-iron fence encircled the property.

    Byrne parked his van and, even though he was wearing his best suit, suddenly felt underdressed. He also realized that he had been holding his breath. He got out of the vehicle, straightened his tie, smoothed the front of his overcoat, and rang the bell. A few moments later the door was opened by a woman in her sixties. Byrne announced himself, and the woman led him through the high, arched doorway. Ahead was a carved mahogany winding staircase; to the right were thick fluted pillars leading to a formal dining room. To the left was the great room, with a view of the pool and the manicured grounds beyond. Byrne's heels echoed in the massive space. The woman took his coat and led him into a study off the enormous foyer.

    The room was darkly paneled, clubby, with a pair of large bookcases built in and a vaulted open-trussed ceiling. A fire burned in the fireplace. The mantel was arrayed with pine cones and other autumn decorations. Above the mantel was a large portrait of Christa-Marie. In the painting she sat in a velvet chair. It had to have been painted right around the time Byrne met her, that dark night in 1990.

    A few moments later the door opened and a man entered.

    Benjamin Curtin was in his early fifties. He had thick gray hair, swept straight back, a strong jaw. His suit was tailored to perfection and might well have cost what Byrne made in a month. Curtin was probably twenty pounds heavier than he looked.

    Byrne introduced himself. He did not produce his identification. He was not there in any official capacity. Not yet.

    'It's a pleasure to meet you, detective,' Curtin said, perhaps to remind Byrne what he did for a living. Curtin had a Southern accent. Byrne pegged him as Mississippi money.

    'And you, counselor.'

    There, Byrne thought. Everyone knows their jobs.

    'Is Liam still keeping the peace down there?'

    Down there, Byrne thought. Curtin made it sound like the boondocks. He was referring to Judge Liam McManus, who everyone knew was going to run for the Philadelphia Supreme Court in a year.

    'We're lucky to have him,' Byrne said. 'Rumor is he won't be there for much longer. Next thing you know he'll be living in Chestnut Hill.'

    Curtin smiled. But Byrne knew it was his professional smile, not one that held any warmth. The attorney gestured to a chair on the other side of the desk. Both men sat down.

    'Can Charlotta get you anything? Coffee? Tea?'

    'I'm fine, thanks.'

    Curtin nodded. The door behind Byrne was closed.

    'So, what brings you here to visit Ms. Schönburg, detective?'

    'I'm afraid I can't really get into anything too specific, but I will say that she may have information about an open investigation being conducted by the Philadelphia Police Department.'

    Curtin looked slightly amused. 'I'm intrigued.'

    'How so?'

    'Well, as I'm sure you're aware, Ms. Schönburg no longer lives a public life. She is by no means a recluse, but, as I'm sure you can appreciate, she does not circulate in any of the social circles to which she once belonged.'

    'I understand.'

    'She has almost constant companionship here, so I'm afraid I don't see how she could possibly be involved in anything that has taken place recently in Philadelphia.'

    'That's what I'm here to determine, Mr. Curtin. But I have a few questions before I meet with her.'

    'Is she suspected of a crime?'

    'No,' Byrne said. 'Absolutely not.'

    Curtin stood, walked to the window, looked out. He continued to speak without turning around. 'I must tell you that in the few years she has been out of prison there have been no fewer than a hundred requests for interviews with her. She is still very much the object of fascination not only with people in the world of classical music but also with the basest denizens of the tabloid world.'

    'I'm not here to write something for the Enquirer,' Byrne said.

    Curtin smiled again. Practiced, mirthless, mechanical. 'I understand. What I'm saying is, all these requests have been presented to Christa-Marie and she has categorically turned them all down.'

    'She contacted me, Mr. Curtin.'

    Byrne saw Curtin's shoulders tense. It appeared that he had not known this. 'Of course.'

    'I need to ask her a few questions, and I want to know what her general mental state is. Is she lucid?'

    'Most of the time, yes.'

    'I'm not sure what that means.'

    'It means that much of the time she is rational and fully functional. She really would not have any problem living on her own, but she chooses to have a full-time psychiatric nurse on the premises.'

    Byrne nodded, remained silent.

    Curtin walked slowly back to the desk, eased himself into the sumptuous leather chair. He placed his forearms on the desk, leaned forward.

    'Christa-Marie has had a hard life, detective. From the outside, one might think she led a life of glamour and privilege and, up until the incident, she did enjoy the many rewards of her talent and success. But after that night, from the interrogations and subsequent allocution, to her eighteen months at Convent Hill, to her incarceration at Muncy, she—'

    The words dropped like a Scud missile. 'Excuse me?'

    Curtin stopped, looked at Byrne.

    'You said Convent Hill?' Byrne asked.


    Convent Hill Mental Health Facility was a massive state-run mental hospital in central Pennsylvania. It had been closed under a cloud of suspicion in the early 1990s after nearly one hundred years of operation.

    'When was Christa-Marie at Convent Hill?'

    'She was there from the time she was sentenced until it closed in 1992.'

    'Why was she sent there?'

    'She insisted on it.'

    Byrne's mind reeled. 'You're telling me that Christa-Marie insisted on being sent to Convent Hill? It was her choice?'

    'Yes. As her attorney I fought against it, of course. But she hired another firm and made it happen.'

    'And you say she was there for eighteen months?'

    'Yes. From there she went to Muncy.'

    Byrne had had no idea that Christa-Marie had spent time at the most notoriously brutal mental-health facility east of Chicago.

    While Byrne was absorbing this news a woman walked into the room. She was about forty and wore a smart navy blue suit, white blouse.

    'Detective, this is Adele Hancock,' Curtin said. 'She is Christa- Marie's nurse.'

    Byrne rose. They shook hands.

    Adele Hancock was trim and athletic, had a runner's body, close- cropped gray hair.

    'Miss Schönburg will see you now,' the woman said.

    Curtin stood, grabbed his coat, his briefcase. He rounded the desk, handed Byrne a linen business card. 'If there is anything else I can do for you, please do not hesitate to call me.'

    'I appreciate your time, sir.'

    'And give Liam my best.'

    Sure, Byrne thought. At the next curling match.

    Benjamin Curtin nodded to Adele Hancock and took his leave.


    Byrne was led down a long dark-paneled hallway past a room that held a grand piano. On that night twenty years ago he had not visited this wing of the house.

    'Is there anything I should know before I meet with her?' Byrne asked.

    'No,' Hancock said. 'But I can tell you that she has not spoken of anything else since your call.'

    When they reached the end of the hallway, the woman stopped, gestured to the room at the end. Byrne stepped inside. It was a solarium of sorts, an octagonal room walled by misted glass. There were scores of huge tropical plants. Music lilted from unseen speakers.

    Have you found them? The lion and the rooster and the swan?

    'Hello, detective.'

    Byrne turned to the sound of the voice. And saw Christa-Marie Schönburg for the first time in twenty years.

The Echo Man
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