“The fish is tough,” said the customer at the table next to mine.
She was an elderly woman, probably from among the human flotsam disgorged an hour earlier from the gleaming cruise ship anchored in the harbor. Rapacious souvenir hunters, they, scouring the town for retail satisfaction before re-embarking with their hard-won booty. She sat alone, dressed in what I imagine she thought was the appropriate style for a seaside resort: white, faux-nautical cap bearing a blue cross-anchor insignia; palm-treed blouse; and calf-length slacks, also white, with a black patent leather belt. She had a necklace of big, polished amber stones to complete the ensemble.
Actually I should say that the scowl on her face completed the woman’s ensemble. After poking and prodding at her plate for a good fifteen minutes with intensifying harrumphing, I was surprised neither that she finally summoned the young waitress to her table nor that her demeanor matched her garish attire.
The waitress was named Aimee. I knew this was her name and also the correct spelling because when she proudly proclaimed that she, Aimee, would be my server today, I read the superfluous nametag pinned strategically above her attractively youthful left breast. She had short, cropped, unnaturally blond hair and a small brass nose ring that was enticingly not inappropriate-looking.
“I’m sorry,” Aimee replied to the elderly lady’s complaint that the fish was tough, “I’ll be happy to take it back.”
“It’s not flaky,” the customer pursued, as if she hadn’t heard Aimee’s uncomplaining acquiescence. “It’s fibrous. It’s supposed to be flaky.” She had bright red lipstick, generously applied, making it seem as if her mouth were dictating the tone of her remarks with an independent life of its own.
“I’ll get you a fresh piece,” said Aimee.
“I don’t even think it’s halibut. It’s too thin.”
“I’m so sorry, ma’am. I’ll make sure the chef does a better job.”
“Is it local?”
“Not the halibut. But we do ship it in fresh from Alaska every day.” Aimee flashed her most encouraging, wholesome smile, quite an engaging one at that.
“Alaska? That’s ten thousand miles away. What’s the matter with here? Your restaurant’s on the dock. Don’t you have fish here? Alaska?” she repeated, as if were a concept too outlandish to consider by any intelligent person.
“It’s still a little early in the season. The fishermen don’t want to have to buy an extra permit when the catch is still light. Next month we’ll have a lot more local fish.”
“That doesn’t me a damn lot of good, does it?” the old lady said, playing to an audience doing its best not to hear it.
I had more interesting things to do than listening to the rest of Madame Defarge’s rant, so, having finished my reasonably decent fish-and-chips, I left money on the table and went to the men’s room before embarking upon my long-planned excursion.
Santa Catalina Island, all thirty-seven mountainous miles of it off the coast of southern California, used to be the sole private domain of the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame and fortune, but years ago they donated the vast majority of it to the Catalina Conservancy to maintain its pristine character. Except for Avalon, the port town where I had just finished my lunch, there were very few signs of human habitation on the island, much to my delight.
Ninety percent of the vehicles on the island were golf carts, bicycles, and Segways, so the average speed limit in town and beyond was a blistering ten miles per hour. Until this trip I had never seen a Segway in action. It’s a curious contraption that looks like a pogo stick on wheels. For moseying around Avalon it served its purpose admirably, being easily maneuverable and able to spin on a dime, but, to my mind, it had so many impracticalities it came up well short to being the earthshaking innovation its designers originally purported it to be. For one, there were no accommodations for inclement weather or slippery conditions. Two, there was no way to transport things like groceries or your beloved pet nastydoodle. Third, there was the security issue: while you left it on the curb to go in the store for a cup of coffee, someone could just pick it up and make off with it.
For my purposes I had rented a golf cart for the day in order to motor up the mountain to the toll-like gate that marked the entrance to the Conservancy, after which I would continue on foot because only authorized vehicles were permitted beyond the barrier. Among the sights I hoped to see was the herd of buffalo that had flourished on the island since they were imported way-back-when to film a Hollywood Western and then just left there to fend for themselves because it was deemed too expensive to ship them back to terra firma. Apparently, they fended very well. With my hiking permit in my back pocket, a map, several bottles of water and two apples in my knapsack, I was itching to get started.
On my way out of the restaurant I stopped at the maître d’s stand. I leaned in close, handed him a ten-dollar bill, and said in a hushed tone, “This is for Aimee for having to put up with the old hag with the makeup.”
The maître d’s smile froze. It took me but a moment to understand why.
“Old hag!” came the voice of the old hag from behind me.
“I’ll ‘old hag’ you! You should learn some manners, young man, and mind your own business.”
This was one of those instances when I knew I should have kept my mouth shut or maybe even apologized. But I didn’t. Deep down inside I might have been hoping I could get her to call me a whippersnapper.
“Look lady,” I said, “it was impossible to enjoy my lunch with you haranguing the waitress. She was trying to be helpful and all you did was make her miserable and everyone in earshot uncomfortable.”
“Look, you. I’m a customer here and I’m entitled to my rights.”
“Rights? What about manners?”
“You’re one to talk about manners?”
“Forget it,” I said. “Some people will never learn.”
“That’s defamation! My son’s a Chicago lawyer. I might just call him and—”
“Oh, shut up!” I said and stormed out the door. Not my best moment.
I slid into my golf cart determined not to have that unpleasant exchange be the one dark cloud in an otherwise perfect, sunny day. The town and the old lady were soon far behind me as I snaked my way higher along the mountainous ridge thrust up from the island’s eastern shore. The weather was immaculate, I had time on my hands, and the tranquility was as alluringly languorous as only a tropical island paradise can be. That the golf cart could only manage five miles per hour on the incline turned out to be an unexpected plus; it gave me even more time to savor the breathtaking vista of the royal blue Pacific, the coast of mainland California a hazy, thin line on the far horizon. From time to time a ramshackle tour bus or taxi rumbled past me in the other direction, going back to town, and we waved at each other. The memory of my irritation was as distant as the town itself.
I had gone around several S-curves when, in my rear-view mirror, I caught a momentary glimpse of a Segway behind me. That seemed odd, because I had presumed that Segways didn’t do well on hills, yet another one of their flaws. I wasn’t even sure that they were permitted outside the perimeter of Avalon proper. Well, to each his own.
After a few more wends and weaves I took another glance into the mirror and noticed that the Segway had gotten closer. I did a double take when I saw the sailor’s cap and the makeup. Either the altitude gain was giving me hallucinations or, against all probability, I was being pursued by the old hag on a Segway! Fortunately, the barrier that blocked the road was just ahead. I parked my cart on the shoulder and, being two generations younger and in better shape than my geriatric nemesis, I began to hike at a brisk pace in order to discourage her from whatever further machinations she might be planning. Certainly she could not keep up on foot.
After trooping about a half mile I came to a bend in the road. Rounding the curve, having built up a therapeutic sweat but only mildly winded, my exertions were rewarded with the wondrous sight of a herd of about two dozen buffalo grazing contentedly on a grassy hillock not more than twenty yards from where I stood. I had been told that the beasts, accustomed to seeing humans, were generally unperturbed and docile, but that one should nevertheless exercise caution while in their vicinity. This seemed like good advice to me. With heads and shoulders as massive as the entire offensive line of the Green Bay Packers, but with the additional adornment of horns that came to a lethal, finely honed point, the animals provided ample natural incentive for me to keep my distance, and I found a safe viewing spot from a hillside on the opposite side of the road. I pulled an apple out of my knapsack and contemplated upon this idyllic scene for I don’t know how long. The buffalo and I, munching our afternoon snacks together. Kinship? Perhaps. Yet I still felt a little guilty infringing upon the herd’s spiritual terrain. It seemed to me that in the island’s pecking order the buffalo were untroubled masters of their domain. They reminded me of the regal forbearance of royalty at Buckingham Palace as they’re being glimpsed by the camera-bearing, curiosity-seeking proletariat.
Since it was only April the sun would start to set in a few hours and I wanted to see as much of the island as possible, so I polished off the apple and drained a bottle of water. I waved to the buffalo and said thank you out loud (but quietly) and was about to strike off again when I heard a noise at once grating and dismaying. Around the bend came the Witch of the West mounted upon her overheated Segway. She spotted me and croaked a triumphant cackle.
“You’re not allowed in here with that contraption!” I hollered at her from my perch, more than a little annoyed. “You need a special permit. Go away!”
“You whippersnapper! You can’t tell me what—”
The woman didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence because she had not unpredictably attracted the attention of one of the buffaloes—a male if I wasn’t mistaken, since it was easily the largest. He must have felt the Segway posed a threat to his harem, because he lifted his gargantuan head from his grazing pose and began to paw at the ground.
Perhaps the woman was a bitch—not perhaps; she was a bitch—but she wasn’t stupid. She turned that Segway around as fast as Michael Schumacher at LeMans and beat a hasty retreat. The buffalo began to trot after her at a moderate gait, his pursuit seemingly more out of curiosity about the bizarre vehicle than with intent to eviscerate its driver. I was torn between thanking the animal for coming to my rescue versus caring for the harpy’s well being. I decided that if I were to ignore her plight it would preoccupy me for the rest of the day and as a result detract from the perfect experience I would otherwise have had. If, further, I were to later find out that she had been trampled into oblivion I would have an added burden of guilt, especially if they had to destroy the animal as a result. And so, laden with a heavy dose of ambivalence, I trotted after the buffalo who trotted after the woman.
Though the old lady miraculously arrived at the gate first, the buffalo had closed the ground between them so that there was no time for her to go around it after dismounting from the Segway. She was, in fact, essentially pinned with her back against the bar that crossed the road, preventing her escape. She faced her opponent, the largest terrestrial animal in North America, with an expression of unmitigated terror. I was still bringing up the rear, but for the first time I noticed she was wearing red sneakers because the pompoms on them were shaking like dice in the hand of a desperate crapshooter down to his last roll.
The buffalo, for its part, had come to a halt when the Segway did, and was grunting at it and nuzzling it as if it were a newly discovered addition to the island’s fauna. The old lady could probably have taken advantage of this distraction and crawled quietly under the gate to make a safe getaway, but instead—maybe because she didn’t want to get her white slacks dirty—she made the unfortunate decision of trying to bolt for it around the perimeter, where there was just enough room for a person (and a Segway) to snake through. Whether it was the sudden motion or the flashing red of her sneakers, the buffalo was aroused and abruptly made some disconcertingly aggressive gestures in her direction.
I took this to be a bad sign. Without taking time to think what I was doing—for if I had, I never would have done it—I ran up behind the buffalo and, to paraphrase the words of the immortal W.C. Fields, grabbed him by the tail and faced the situation. I yanked as hard as I could.
“Run, lady!” I yelled. For the first time, she took my advice without arguing.
The buffalo bellowed and spun on its heels (assuming hooved animals have heels), presumably with designs to swallow me whole. As he did so, I took advantage of his maneuver to dash past him and vault myself over the gate.
The buffalo was maddened at having been one-upped, and maybe a little humiliated, too, for having had his tail pulled by a puny human in full view of his wives, but at least the old lady and I were now both safe. As we caught our breaths we looked at the brute through the gate and he stared back at us. None of us moved. What could one read in those big, brown, watery eyes? Finally, somewhere in his buffalo brain he decided it wasn’t worth his while to demolish the gate. He turned, but before rejoining his herd, however, he did take advantage of the Segway being on his side of the barrier by crushing it under his hooves with frighteningly modest effort, and then lifting his hind leg and urinating on it.
Observing the wreckage, I took a deep breath, and then another one, before saying to the old lady, who now truly looked like an old lady, “Let me drive you back to town.” Maybe, I thought, I had been too hard on her.
Without a word she hobbled into my golf cart, and in silence we began our way back down the mountainside, lost in our own meditations, thankful to still be alive to appreciate the sun beginning to lower behind the western verge of the island, behind the hills, cloaking us in a tranquil blue-gray. Little by little the anxiety of our narrow escape from the buffalo waned. It was impossible not to lapse back into a languid sense of spiritual ease, and it almost seemed as if our recent close encounter with mutilation and death had been someone else’s story.
“This seat is uncomfortable,” she said.
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In addition to four murder mysteries–and soon to be a fifth–that take place in the dark corners of the classical music world, I’ve written and assortment of short stories that range from the world of music to the wilderness out west, plus essays on various subjects from music to environment.The mystery novels–Devil’s Trill, Danse Macabre, Death and the Maiden, Death and Transfiguration, and soon, Playing With Fire–form the Daniel Jacobus series. The first four were published by St. Martin’s Press. Playing With Fire will be my first collaboration with Severn House. Daniel Jacobus is a blind violin teacher as irascible as he is brilliant. Drawn kicking and screaming into mysteries as complex and intriguing as a Bach fugue, Jacobus inevitably gets himself into hot water before solving the whodunit with the aid of his two friends: African American cellist companion, Nathaniel Williams, and former student, Yumi Shinagawa.
In 2009 I was honored by Barnes and Noble, who selected Devil’s Trill for their Discover Great New Writers fall catalog, in which was written: “Rich in music detail and featuring a fabulously roguish cast, Devil’s Trill will delight music lovers and mystery fans alike. Danse Macabre, featuring the same roguish cast, was released in September, 2010.” Danse Macabre was selected by Library Journal as one of their top five mysteries of 2010. Death and Transfiguration, 2012, received three starred reviews. Read what the prestigious international journal, The Strad (April 2010) had to say about the scholarly background to “Devil’s Trill” in regard to famous thefts and forgeries of great violins. Read more about my books and read reviews of Death and Transfiguration, Danse Macabre, Devil’s Trill and Death and the Maiden from the critics, along with interviews and commentary in the blogs. Please visit my Music to Die For page, where you can hear me perform the music mentioned in my novels and read my audio notes on these works.
To listen to an entertaining interview about the Daniel Jacobus series and hear me perform some of the “title music” live, here’s a link to the syndicated radio show, Highway 89.
You can find some of my short stories in the following fine mystery anthologies and magazines by clicking here on Amazon:
Devil’s Trill (2009) Jacobus confronts his personal demons in the form of an accursed Stradivarius violin that’s stolen from a violin competition that preys upon young prodigies. St. Martin’s Press [A Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” Selection]
Danse Macabre (2010) After a beloved, internationally renowned violinist is brutally murdered with an unknown weapon, Jacobus reluctantly proves that the virtuoso’s young rival was not the killer. St. Martin’s Press [Library Journal top 10 mysteries of 2010; Utah Humanities Council Book of the Year in Fiction]
Death and the Maiden (2011) As members of an internationally renowned string quartet mysteriously disappear, Jacobus springs into action when one of them is his former student. St. Martin’s Press
Death and Transfiguration (2012) A murder in a symphony orchestra in turmoil is the backdrop for a battle of wills between Jacobus and the orchestra’s tyrannical conductor. St. Martin’s Press
Playing With Fire (2016 release) A suspicious fire at Ye Olde Violin Shoppe on Christmas Eve leads Jacobus along a perilous trail of death. Severn House
“Brotherhood” Does a distraught string bass player get away with killing the conductor? (3,753) [Red Dawn, Level Best, 2015]
“Pea Soup” The famous New England fog is a metaphor for the state of mind of an inbred backwoodsman. (3,415) [Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #14, 2014.]
“The Day After Memorial Day” A preternatural experience at the Rockdale Cemetery claims poor Milos Eisitch. (904) [Berkshire Magazine, May/June 2015.]
“Christmas Concerto” Uncle Percy’s demise at a posh senior citizen home is not what it seems. (3,734 words) [Rogue Wave, Level Best, 2014.] Al Blanchard Award Finalist
“Where the Buffalo Roam” Monk Hammond’s disappearance coincides with a shindig of politicos on Antelope Island in Utah. (7,708) [Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Fall, 2015.]
“A Student of History” PTSD rationalized. (538) [Kwik Krimes, ed. Otto Penzler, 2013.]
“Snagged” Proud Victor Maravich doesn’t take kindly to betrayal. (524) [Dead Cold, Victoria Dougherty blog, 2013.]
“Resonance” The inestimable value of early exposure to classical music by participating in youth orchestras. (2,000) [Boston Symphony, Spring Feature 2016]
“Three Musical Monuments: A Performer’s Perspective” A comparison of Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony, Sibelius Second Symphony, and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” based upon my performance experiences. (2,000) [Boston Symphony, Fall Feature 2014.]
“Genius for Any Age” An attempt to explain the inexplicable greatness of Mozart’s later symphonies. [Boston Symphony, Spring Feature, March 2015.] (2,262)
“1713-‘La Stravaganza’” Vivaldi’s coming-out party as a composer of virtuoso violin concertos(1,113) [Reichel Arts Review]
“Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Musical DNA” How my experience as a performer in and conductor of this iconic work was influenced by my predecessors who premiered it. (1,511)[Reichel Arts Review]
“Corelli and the Elevator” How the innocuous violin chinrest helped change the course of music history and musical taste. (1,611)[Reichel Arts Review]
“Interpretation, A Case for Broad Perspective” Why an “authentic” performance might not be all that it’s cracked up to be. (2,787) [Reichel Arts Review]
“Labor of Love: A Primer in Symphony Orchestra Musician/Management Relations” Sweet harmony between musicians and management in symphony orchestras…if only. (1,984) [Reichel Arts Review]
“Playing With Perfection: A Week With The ‘Firebird’ Stradivarius” What it feels like to perform on one of the world’s greatest violins. (1,286) [Reichel Arts Review]
“Joshua Rifkin” Interview with the famed, maverick interpreter of Bach. (1,261) [Aesop Magazine, 2013]
“Sir Colin Davis Remembered” A personal reminiscence of the great British conductor. (1,011) [Reichel Arts Review; Berlioz Society Newsletter, 2013]
“Berlioz in Beijing” (601) An examination of the glorious “Symphonie Fantastique’ by Berlioz and what it meant to perform it with the Boston Symphony in China. [Berlioz Society Newsletter, 2014]
“Tanglewood Trails” What it means to me to play with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood every summer. (670) [Berkshire Fine Arts, 2013]
“Well-Traveled Baggage” Behind the scenes of a Boston Symphony concert tour to Asia as seen by a wardrobe trunk. (818) [Berkshire Magazine, July 2014]
Concert and Book Reviews:
“Superb Singing on Display in Utah Opera’s ‘The Rake’s Progress'” Well done production of Stravinsky’ novel opera.[Reichel Arts Review, May 2015; Opera Magazine, August 2015]
“A Delightful Concert by the Meccore Quartet” Review of a fine quartet concert. (642) [Reichel Arts Review]
“A Rare Treat” Review of a concert of all six Ysaye unaccompanied violin sonatas performed by three Utah Symphony violinists. (436) [Reichel Arts Review, January 2015]
“A Disappointing Showing” The Brentano Quartet doesn’t live up to its reputation. (838) [Reichel Arts Review, 2014]
“Isabelle Faust Recital” Review of an interesting program of three 19th century Viennese contemporaries. (1,352) [Reichel Arts Review]
“An Unusual Program, Excellently Done” A review of an unusual program of Russian and Moldavian music on the Nova chamber music series. (772) [Reichel Arts Review, December 2014]
Utah Symphony review. Mixed feelings regarding a mixed program conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. (612) [Reichel Arts Review, 2014]
Utah Symphony review. Strong performances of Nielsen, and Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations, performed by cellist, Matthew Zalkind. (570) [Reichel Arts Review, 2014]
“Whispers of Vivaldi,” book review. A whodunit during the Italian Baroque starring a castrato sleuth. (511) [Publishers Weekly, 2013]
“Address Climate Change or We’ll Be Fighting Tourists for Drink of Water” Utah’s water supply is drying up and bandaids won’t help in the long run. [Op-ed, Salt Lake Trib, 2015]
“A Tank Half Empty” The glut of oil on the market has had unintended consequences, not all of them good. (608) [Op-ed, 2014]
“A Two-Way Road” As we transition to renewable energy, we need to consider what, and who, we’re leaving behind.(601) [Op-ed,2014]
“Crude Reality: North Dakota oil boom has Utah envying its surplus green” The oil boom is raising eyebrows, and frowns, in North Dakota. (368) [Op-ed, 2014]
“A response to ‘America’s new role in the oil market’” “Drill, Baby, Drill” is short-sighted. (690) [Deseret News, Op-ed, 2014]
“A Case for Fee and Dividend on Carbon Production” Why the argument that ‘science isn’t settled’ should not paralyze us from making urgent decisions. (814) [Op-ed, 2014]
“The Water Cycle and the Democratic Process” Government and the public both have a cyclical responsibility to ensure the future of the water cycle. (523) [Op-ed, 2014]
“Renewable Revolution” Oil will someday go the way of the whale as a source of fuel…and the sooner the better. (400) [Op-ed, 2013]
“Garbage Time” Like love, plastic is forever, but it’s not so nice. (1,167) [Berkshire Fine Arts, 2013]
“The Smoking Brisket Conspiracy” (satire) Everything you need to know, and don’t need to know, about smoking the perfect brisket. (1,413) [Berkshire Fine Arts, 2013]
“Umbrian Porchetta” The author’s mouth-watering recipe straight from the porchetta stand in the hill town of Citta della Pieve, Umbria, Italy. [The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook, Quirk Books, 2015]
Symphonies & Scorpions Ramblings of a Musician on the Boston Symphony’s Far East Tour of 2014 (52,671)
“Circle of Fifths” A renowned Russian émigré quartet reaches back into painful memories of Chernobyl. [Adapted from Devil’s Trill](5,153)
“A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” A priceless Stradivarius is stolen from an unsuspecting concert violinist. Or is she? (4,998)
“Fool Me Once” A young violinist tries to pull the wool over Jacobus’s eyes and ends up paying a steep price. (1,455)
Music-related short stories:
“The Case of the Burqa-ed Busker” Petty larceny gets a happy-go-lucky busking violin student gets into hot water with MI6. (3,277)
“Lessons from the Master” Paganini’s grand return to the concert stage is thwarted at the last moment by an insistent creditor. (3,307)
“Maestro, the Pot-Bellied Pig” Children’s story about a harp player who has to deal with an unlikely pet. (1,435)
“Taste” A very brief vignette about an audience member’s thoughts during a lengthy symphony performance. (353)
New England short fiction:
“Asparagus” A phone conversation. A knock at the door. (437)
“Oh, Give Me a Home” What does climate change have to do with the body is discovered with three arrows in it in the Great Salt Lake after thirty years? (11,425)
“Where Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word” The body of Orson Hardwood is found in a latrine at Horse Thief campground in Utah. Dirty business. (2,266)
“And The Skies Are Not Cloudy All Day” Desperado Lamar Perkins has the tables fatally turned because he didn’t know the territory of Capitol Reef, Utah. (3,623)
“Buffaloed” Beware of nasty, old ladies on Segways when you’re on Catalina Island, California. (2,641)
“Prince of the Leaf Cutters” Pavlovic finds salvation in an ant colony. (5,962)
“Viral” A novel treatment for an untreatable disease. (1,235)
“Yield or Die” Two best friends fight to the death…and then go play. (1,517)
“Overheated” A session in a sauna gets too hot. (937)