Chapter 53


    Christa-Marie Schönburg sat in a large burgundy leather chair, her pale white hands folded in her lap. Even from across the room, the first thing Byrne noticed were her eyes. Not only were they a strikingly deep amber - he had noticed the same thing twenty years earlier - but they had not changed. Two decades, two difficult decades of incarceration, psychiatric treatment and dealing with whatever demons had possessed her to begin with had not hardened her eyes in the least. They were a young woman's eyes, still as arresting as they'd been when she was the brightest star in the classical-music firmament.

    Her hair had turned a soft, shimmering silver.

    She was wearing a black silk pantsuit.

    On the table next to her was a pair of reading glasses and an open book.

    Byrne crossed the room and found that he was at a loss for words. What power did she have over him?

    Christa-Marie stood, still as slender as ever, but standing this close Byrne saw the faint lines that etched her face, her forehead, the papery skin on her hands. Still, with her cascade of silken hair, she was a beautiful woman. Perhaps even more elegant than before.

    He had not stood this close to her since the night he had put her in handcuffs.

    He took her hand. His first instinct was to lean forward and kiss her on the cheek. He realized at the last instant that this would have been inappropriate, to say the least. Still, the urge was present. She made the decision for him. On tiptoes, she leaned in and grazed his cheek with her lips.

    She had been twenty-eight the last time he had seen her. She was now almost fifty. She had escaped, or postponed, so many of the things that can happen to a man or woman in those years. Byrne found himself wondering what he looked like to her, what the landscaping of his face and body by his job and habits and life had done to the image she might have retained from that day in 1990.

    Without a word she gestured to the other chair by the windows, perhaps five feet away. Byrne sat down, but for some reason did not sit back. He leaned forward, the way one might do at a job interview. Music played softly in the background. It was a cello piece, with piano.

    After a few long minutes Christa-Marie spoke.

    'It was her last studio recording, you know.'


    'Jackie du Pre,' she said. 'She toured in 1973, and they savaged her. I wonder what they would have said of me.'

    After she was sentenced in 1990, Byrne read a few books that had been written about Christa-Marie. The comparisons to Jacqueline du Pre were as specious as they were expected. It was said of Jacqueline du Pre that on her final concert tour, due to her illness, she could no longer feel the strings and had to play by sight. Byrne, having never played an instrument, having never been considered great at anything - he was only world-class at screwing up romantic relationships - could only imagine the horror and heartbreak of something like this happening to someone so gifted.

    In Christa-Marie Schönburg's case, her skills had not eroded in the least when she was sent to prison. She was still, at the moment of her incarceration, one of the most celebrated and revered cellists in the world. Here, looking at the woman so many years later, he wondered which fate was worse.

    'We came from the conservatories in those days,' she said. 'I went to Prentiss. My teacher was a childhood friend of Ormandy. They might never have found me if not for him.'

    Christa-Marie arranged herself on the chair, continued.

    'You know, there really weren't all that many women back then. It wasn't until much later that playing in a major orchestra, at least one of the Big Five - Boston, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia - was seen as a job, a full-time job that a woman could do. Gainful employment, as they used to say.'

    Byrne remained silent. While he was sitting there he felt his cellphone vibrate three separate times. He couldn't answer. Finally he just said it:

    'Christa-Marie, I need to ask you something.'

    She sat forward in her chair, expectant. In that instant she looked like a schoolgirl. Byrne held up the note card.

    'Why did you write me?'

    Instead of answering she looked out the window for a few moments. She looked back. 'Do you know those scrolls on the bottom front of the cello? The holes cut there?'

    Byrne glanced at the cello in the corner. He saw what she was talking about. He nodded.

    'Do you know what they call those?' she asked.


    'They're called the F-holes. Can you imagine a group of young students hearing this for the first time?'

    Christa-Marie's expression soon changed from one of joyful remembrance to one of longing.

    'My happiest years were at Prentiss, you know. There was no pressure. There was just the music. Bernstein once told me that the only thing that mattered was to love the music. It's true.'

    She smoothed her hair, ran a hand across her cheek. 'I was just nineteen that first night at the Academy. Nineteen. Can you imagine?'

    Byrne could not. He told her so.

    'It has been so many years since then,' she said.

    She fell silent again. Byrne had the feeling that if he did not move forward with his questions he would never again have the opportunity.

    'Christa-Marie, I need to talk to you about your letter.'

    She glanced at him. 'After all this time, you want to get to business.' She sighed dramatically. 'If we must.'

    Byrne held up the note card again. 'I need to know what you were talking about when you wrote me, and asked if I'd "found them." If I'd found the lion and the rooster and the swan.'

    She stared at him for a long second, then rose from her chair. She walked the short distance between them, knelt before him.

    'I can help you,' she said.

    Byrne did not answer immediately, hoping she would continue. She did not. 'Help me do what?'

    Christa-Marie looked out the window again. In this light, at this short distance, her skin was translucent, the result of a lifetime spent hiding from the sun.

    'Do you know the Suzuki method?' she asked.

    Byrne had heard of it, but he knew nothing about it. He told her so.

    'He focused on song-playing over technique. He allowed students to make music on the first day. It's no different from learning a language.' She leaned in. 'We two speak the language of death, do we not?'

    Christa-Marie leaned even closer, as if to share a secret.

    'I can help you stop the killings,' she said softly.

    The words echoed off the misted glass walls of the solarium.

    'The killings?'

    'Yes. There will be more, you know. Many more. Before Halloween night at midnight.'

    Her tone was flat, emotionless. She talked about murder in the same manner in which she had talked about music earlier.

    'Why Halloween midnight?'

    Before she answered, Byrne saw the fingers on her left hand move. At first he thought it might have just been some sort of twitch, an involuntary movement brought about by being in one position for an extended period of time. But out of the corner of his eye he saw her fingers curl around an imaginary thing and he realized she was recreating some passage she had once played on the cello. Then, just as suddenly as the movement began, it stopped. She dropped her hands to her lap.

    'It is not over until the coda, detective.'

    Byrne knew the word. A coda was a final section to a piece of music, generally played with some dramatic urgency - a flourish at the end of a symphony, perhaps. 'I'm not sure what you mean.'

    'George Szell would often stand in his office window and see which of his players took their instruments home with them.'

    Byrne said nothing, hoping she would return to the moment on her own.

    'Easy for the oboist, n'est-cepas? she added. 'Not so for the bassist.' She sat up on her heels. 'Did you know that the cellist and bassist must each purchase an extra airline ticket for their instruments?'

    Byrne hadn't known that.

    'The Cavani String Quartet always books for five.'

    'Christa-Marie,' Byrne said, hoping that his voice did not sound as if he were pleading. 'I need—'

    'Will you come back on Halloween?' she asked, interrupting him. 'I want to show you a special place in the country. We'll make a day of it. We'll have such fun.'

    Byrne had to find out what she meant in her note, the references to the animals. But he now knew that getting the information was not going to be easy. Before he could stop himself he said: 'Yes. I'll come back.'

    She looked at him as if seeing him for the first time, her expression darkening. 'I can help you stop the killings, Kevin. But first you must do something for me.'

    'What is it, Christa-Marie?' he asked. 'What can I do for you?'

    Of all the things he expected her to say, what she did say nearly took his breath away. They were probably the last two words he would have expected to hear, two words that would carry his thoughts well into the dark hours of the night.

    Christa-Marie Schönburg took his hand in hers, looked deep into his eyes, and said: 'Love me.'

The Echo Man
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