By Sidney Williams
This is part one of a four-part serial published July 10-31 2014. The rest of the story can be found here.
“The client wants assurances the sheet music from Casbah will be in his hands this week.”
Amil Bera’s accent became more pronounced as his agitation rose.
“Why the hell else is he funding a trip to London, he asks me. So, now I ask you.”
Aubrey Slater kept her voice calm and even. “I’ve been all over Kensington and Chelsea, Amil. Part of Camden. My back aches and my feet are throbbing.”
“And for this you have nothing to show?”
Aubrey sipped from the dram of Glenfiddich she’d poured to temper the sense of urgency born with Amil’s “please call” message. Just one, she’d told herself. One.
She put the hotel glass next to the only thing she had to show for her slog, a little covered jar that had once been used to hold sterile cotton balls on the makeup table of one West End actress or another.
Or at least that’s what she’d tell Delilah when she offered it as souvenir of the London adventure.
“I have a lot of shops lined up for tomorrow. Something will turn up.”
EBay and Craigslist have brought a lot of forgotten items out of closets and attic corners, but some collectibles required a hard target search through old shops and flea markets. A few disorganized shopkeepers and auction houses still have treasures, called sleepers, nestled away, forgotten, un-cataloged, and, most importantly, not recognized for their value.
Enter Amil Bera and Bera Imports. For a select clientele i.e. those willing to throw wads of cash, Amil dispatched emissaries for the hard-to-find items. Emissaries such as Aubrey who had discovered she possessed a bit of sixth sense for such matters.
She had no idea what made the music for the final song of the first act of the forgotten musical Casbah so important, but for Amil finding the elusive collectable meant that more business would flow from this middleman who’d approached him, a broker for a number of exclusive collectors
“Tomorrow will have to be better, or perhaps I will need to find someone better,” Amil said. “If your back aches, get a massage, my dime, then go find the music.”
When the knock came precisely a half hour after her call, she found the peephole clouded, maybe from the steam drifting from the shower she’d stepped under to wash off the street grime.
She opened anyway and found she wasn’t looking at the buff, blond British stud she’d imagined, though she couldn’t feel disappointed. Glossy black hair, rich bronze skin, lineage clearly Middle Eastern, tall and slender with firm muscles evident under the white tee, the hotel spa’s logo strained against a pectoral.
“American?” he asked when she invited him in.
“Ohio originally,” she said. “You’re from?”
“Here.” And his accent seemed to confirm it, British with just an inflection that suggested something more.
“My family is Persian.”
“Our line goes much further back, but yes, the region. I am Baraz, by the way.”
She let him take her hand and give it a gentle squeeze as he bowed.
“I don’t suppose you can have a drink,” she said, reaching for her glass as she slipped the make-up jar’s askew lid back into place.
“Not while I’m on duty.”
“Do you mind if I keep this close?”
“Not at all. I won’t lecture.”
She nudged the lid back into place on the souvenir then splashed more scotch, sipping as Baraz unfolded a massage table.
“What brings you to London, Miss Ohio?”
“Call me Aubrey. Old family surname that my Dad liked, plus it goes with my hair.”
She lifted a damp auburn lock.
“I deal in collectibles.”
“You don’t have to pretend.”
“No, it is quite interesting.” A wry smile. “You wish to relax and not talk business, though?”
He unfolded a sheet and spread it the width of his arms. “We’ll drape you in this.”
Aubrey’s heart quickened as she turned her back to him, unbelting her robe. An immediate tingle buzzed through her as his skin brushed hers. If he’d asked any secrets she would have revealed them.
“Simple touch can do a great deal,” he said, caressing the back of her hand and bringing a sheen. “The fingertips can release great pockets of tension. You have that?“
“I’m a thousand miles from home on a speculative gamble. You could say that.’
“Your business is difficult?”
“Let me begin the preparation,” he said. “You will forget your problems for a while.”
Sliding the sheet slowly down her back, he squeezed a dollop of oil onto her spine. Her lungs stopped working as he brought a hand to her neck and slid his palm downward, spreading warm oil across her flesh.
“Beginning to feel relaxed, Aubrey?”
“Wonderfully,” she gasped.
“What are your wishes?”
“Anything to make you more relaxed?”
“Lower back’s a bit fatigued,” she said, pushing away the first request that came to mind.
He dragged both palms with gentle pressure in parallel lines across her shoulders and all the way to the base of her anteriors. Time for another short breath as the muscles surrendered. She fought an urge to turn over, to make an offer. It could be so easy to get lost.
“What collectibles do you pursue here?”
She told him about the musical and the sheet music though she wasn’t supposed to breathe it to anyone. That might tip competitors or let a shopkeeper know the value he was sitting on.
“It’s the closing song from Act 1. I’m not sure why it’s so desirable, but I’m glad to have the gig.”
She didn’t care about destinations as long as they were away. She sought distraction from memories as well as her commission. Abandoning the divorce arbitration had been difficult, but Jody’s attorneys had been too powerful.
She’d surrendered before her sins from those moments she’d gotten lost, could be read into the record. Jody was not without indiscretions. His had driven Aubrey’s, but some things Delilah didn’t need to hear about her mother.
Better to fight another day.
“Is that the show that they say is cursed?” Baraz asked as Aubrey rattled ice cubes and sipped the runoff.
“You’ve heard of it?”
He laughed. “Because of my heritage. I’ve heard it talked about.”
“I don’t know that cursed is exactly what I’ve heard, but it played only a few times in the West End in 1956, a year before the Broadway opening. Everyone assessed the material as a hit, but attendance trickled off fast.”
“Perhaps I have not heard cursed, but steeped in dark magic.”
“That’s an interesting way to put it. The show opened and closed the same night in New York. The Times criticwas in the house, but there doesn’t seem to be much documentation, just rumors among theater folk.”
His thumbs pressed on soft tissue near her spine, and something inside her melted.
“Sheet music was released only in London so a lot of people seem to want it. Production materials in New York got lost or misplaced, and the official licensing company, Samuel French, never offered the piece in its catalog. ”
Oh, god. Was she saying too much?
He pushed the sheet upward, stopping at the top of her thighs, making it a thin ribbon now covering just a strip of her flesh. Thumbs pressed the backs of her thighs, triggering explosive charges of excitement.
“I will keep you in my thoughts,” Baraz said. “Urging you toward success.”
His hand slid a couple of inches upward. “Perhaps if you are relaxed things will go better.”
What had he said about wishes? She gave in to the urge to roll over and reach for his hand, to guide it now as she thought of solace and refuge.
New energy was tinged only with a little regret the next morning as she pounded sidewalks in West London, overcoat flapping in the chill wind as she waited for shops to open so she could slip in, pick through bins and peruse shelves and magazine baskets stuffed for display. By just before noon she’d hiked half of Portobello Road, talked to a host of shopkeepers, filled her nostrils with the dry smell of pages and blackened her fingertips with old print.
She recognized the loose sheet because she had been over the musical’s lyrics enough times to spot a reference to Naaz. It was the middle portion of the tune, pages 2 and 3, front and back, meant to slip inside a single, folded sheet with pages 1 and 4.
It wasn’t bagged. With care, she slipped it from the bend and turned it over. Flecks crumbled from the edges, but the music was intact, sharp and readable.
“I have something,” she typed in a quick text to Amil. “An inside page.”
With a glimpse over her shoulder, she smoothed the page on a nearby buffet and snapped one quick shot and then another. Taking the page along with the music for “Looking For a Piano” from the West End’s Salad Days, she headed for the checkout.
“Are you a collector, madam?” the silver haired proprietor asked as he rang up the purchase and accepted her American Express card.
“They’re for my daughter. She wants to go into musical theater, and old pieces like these are inspirational to her.”
She and Amil had devised the variation on the truth before her departure to keep any rivals or shopkeepers off track.
“I have a gent who comes in once in awhile to offer me items. He was a stage manager in his younger years. Not doing so well now, so he sells things he’s accumulated. Might have something special of interest. A real thrilling bit of stage memorabilia, and he won’t charge an arm and a leg for someone like yourself. He’s just happy to have a few quid for the pub.”
“How can I get in touch with him?”
From a card file, he came up with a plain white business card.
“He drops stacks of these off for me every now and then. Wants me to send interested buyers his way.”
The address was Islington. She caught the Underground, thinking of Baraz’s fingertips as people brushed against her. Would he be on duty tonight? Perhaps another massage would be in order in celebration of what she’d found. If Richard Lambeth, the man on the card, had more, she’d definitely be due a reward and a consolation since even with this victory, she’d be a long way from a win against Jody.
The neighborhood showed signs of wear, and she became conscious of her makeup. The lipstick and blush in this land where choices were more subdued made her stand out as American. She hadn’t stepped back on her usual application, trying to look the part of affluent soccer mom—what she had once been.
A couple of guys in work boots, tees and jeans raked her with gazes as she passed the stoop where they sat smoking. She ignored the cat calls, keeping her pace determined and her eyes focused forward, but when she reached the narrow doorway that seemed to match the numbers on the card, she noticed a man in a kufi and a loose fitting Eastern robe.
She stared back just for a second. His eyes were like black stones. She broke the gaze, pulled back the door and shuffled up a narrow stairway to knock on what should be Lambeth’s apartment.
After a few seconds, while she peered down the stairs, she saw the man in the kufi peek through a window. She avoided his eyes this time.
“I’m told you have stage memorabilia,” she said when her knock was answered.
“What were you interested in?” The old man in the grey cardigan had snowy white hair curling down to his collar in back, his beard Santa-like.
“My daughter is an aspiring musical theater performer, so I’m hoping to take her some interesting items that represent the West End, some things you might not find every day.”
“Yes, but you know, I’m most interested in sheet music. She’s certainly gotten into show tunes. I’ve sort of harbored the thought that having some pieces in her audition repertoire that casting people don’t hear every day might be helpful, give her a leg up.”
“I have the rehearsal sheets from a few shows, but sheet music is more after the fact for me. I’ve got some tea cups that were props in a production of Pal Joey. And a boa that was used in that show and perhaps some others.”
He shuffled over to a closet, leaned in and came out with a pink mass of feathers Delilah would love, though Aubrey didn’t want to turn her into a stripper.
“Twenty five pounds.”
Expensive with currency conversion.
“Let me think about it. What else have you got? Anything from Salad Days or that genie musical? I hear the showstopper at the end of Act I is amazing. That show’s answer to `All I Ask of You’ or `One More Day.’”
He grew solemn. “I might have something from Salad Days. I don’t really like to touch things from Casbah.”
It was like he hated to say it.
“I know there’s superstition in the theater…”
He forced a smile. “A bit of that, yes, but this isn’t like the Scottish play. In Casbah I’m afraid it’s a little more grim.”
“Really? I’ve never heard much about it, but it’s come up while I’ve been over here.”
“Not a good idea to fool with props from that play.”
“What about the music?”
“Could be the music is why the props and anything else are to be handled with care. Do you know the history?”
“Casbah was based on material from the turn of the century, material penned by a man named Andre Aksakov, a world traveler, and a member of the Theosophical Society plus an order of composers called The Lazarev Five.”
“I hadn’t heard that.”
“The Lazarev Five were artists who wanted to explore the full capacity of music, possibly even at a magical level. The leader was Dmitry Lazarev, who was a scientist and a composer.”
“Is that why everyone’s so nervous about Casbah? The magic?”
“I can’t speak to what ‘appened in New York, but ‘ere, some said they saw eerie, indescribable figures in the air.”
“Was it possibly part of the show? Lighting effects?”
“No one ever admitted to it. Just to strangeness. People started to stay away. If it was just shadow and light from the effects people, they’d ‘ave stopped, wouldn’t they?”
“I know these were less enlightened times, but they thought they were genies, or what?”
“Djinn are demons. Some malevolent. People were so disturbed, the show closed. People were scared to attend. They ‘ushed it up, but that’s what the word in the theater world was. Somehow, somethin’ in the music was opening a door. Aksakov and Lazarev had traveled in Egypt, collected all sorts of knowledge and music. The fifties composers in a new Lazarev circle used some of that. You know ‘ow composers can take snippets and work ‘em into their tunes? One of the tunes in Casbah supposedly contained a snippet, a diatonic or something, that had some kind of power or meaning. It was said to open the doorway between worlds, wadden it? Between ours and the world where the djinn live or where they’re locked away.”
“That’s really creepy,” Aubrey said.
Poor old guy had started to believe old legends. Maybe there was a touch of dementia.
She returned to her room that evening with her bag one feather boa heavier. Post Divorce War Skirmish No. 1, Aubrey had settled for the limited shared custody agreement that let Jody keep the girl most of the time. Delilah missed her so gifts didn’t hurt. She could offer the boa with the same grand speculation as the makeup jar. Maybe greats from the West End had used it, maybe even Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins herself.
Exhaustion twisted around her spine. She was ready for collapse, a drink and another massage. She pulled a new bottle of scotch from beside the boa in the bag and tried Jody before her first whiskey.
He refused to put Delilah on.
Sidney Williams (@Sidney_Williams) is a creative writing instructor and the author of several paperback horror thrillers, graphic novels, and comic book mini-series. His latest novel is Midnight Eyes from Crossroad Press, and he is finishing a book called Dark Hours also to be published by Crossroad Press. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Cemetery Dance, Under the Fang and Hot Blood: Deadly After Dark, and he has written young adult thrillers under the name Michael August. He can be found on the web at Sid is Alive.