Some said he was the greatest clarinetist to grace the Earth. Others tempered that praise, proclaiming him to be the brightest star ever to shine upon Second Avenue. Naftule Brandwein was a legend in his time, and others believed that legend would stand for decades to come.
Frank O’Hanlon didn’t care about any of those things. He just wanted to question the man.
“I’m sorry,” said the man blocking his path, “But it’s absolutely impossible.”
O’Hanlon didn’t like it when he couldn’t get his way. He especially disliked when the obstruction came in the form of a prissy stage manager like Leo Cohen.
“It’s hardly impossible,” said O’Hanlon. “I need to talk to Mr. Brandwein tonight. The show hasn’t begun yet. All I need is a few minutes.”
“Detective O’Hanlon, how many times do I need to tell you: Mr. Brandwein is very particular about his pre-performance activities. He refuses to deviate from them, and I won’t be the one to disrupt his schedule simply because you wish to question him about a minor little manner.”
“A minor little manner! You call being a potential witness to a murder a minor little manner?”
Cohen regarded him with utter disdain. “It’s all semantics, Detective. But in the end, you’ll have to wait, just like everyone else. Please excuse me.”
The door slammed only once but in O’Hanlon’s mind it repeated like the endless loop of a broken 78. He thought of knocking again, just to piss Cohen off, but knew it would be a waste of time. He didn’t want to add humiliation to a growing list of emotions including frustration, impatience and mortification.
O’Hanlon moved away from the dressing room door, unsure of his next move. The first case he’d worked on as a detective and already it was going to hell. No suspects, hardly any evidence, and a witness who was too busy doing…whatever the hell it was he was doing to actually deign to speak to him.
A man rushed down the hall, pointing in O’Hanlon’s direction.
“Hey! Get outta here! The show’s gonna start any minute!”
O’Hanlon didn’t move.
“Do I have to repeat myself a little louder here? You gotta clear out and take your seat!”
O’Hanlon didn’t have a seat, wasn’t intending to stay, but the other man’s sharp stare left little choice but to obey.
The other man proceeded to the left and motioned for O’Hanlon to follow. As he did so, he wondered if flashing his badge might get him in for free.
“Ticket, please,” said the strangely costumed young woman standing at the reception.
O’Hanlon held out his badge. “Police business, ma’am.”
The girl’s eyes brightened and she stepped back, slightly fearful. “Oh, I’m so sorry! Go right ahead.”
O’Hanlon suppressed a smile. “Can I ask you something?”
“Why are you covered in feathers?”
The girl shrugged. “What the theater manager wants…”
O’Hanlon nodded and strode past her into the theater, already packed and buzzing like birds congregating in the trees outside his Washington Heights apartment. The noise confused him, but so did lots of things lately.
O’Hanlon had been promoted to detective only a month before, and it was apparent to himself and everyone else that he had extreme difficulties adjusting to the job. He’d loved working the beat, wearing his NYPD uniform with pride and occasionally pushing around a stray vagrant or two. But the new job brought more responsibility, a larger workload, and a whole lot more stress.
Never mind that he felt naked in plainclothes.
But then he thought of Celia: beautiful Celia with her Main Line background, who wanted nothing less than a sharp-dressed man with a real job and a bright future.
“Think of the opportunity,” she’d exclaimed when he told her the news of his promotion. “Think of the possibility! We can move up the wedding by six months now!”
He didn’t know which prospect made him more nervous.
But he couldn’t have refused; the department was short this year and nobody else passed the exam. O’Hanlon was given the position and a warning: make the department look good, at all costs.
That’s all he wanted, too, but he kept finding new ways of screwing up. Most new detectives got their first case almost immediately after promotion, but O’Hanlon chose the wrong time and place to celebrate, sleeping in so late his first day back he was awarded three weeks’ desk duty.
Just when he thought he’d kill himself if he filled out another useless report, the boss had relented in a big way. A suspected mobster had been gunned down by another mafioso, but nobody would talk, and the only known witness was a fortysomething musician who for whatever reason, was the darling of Murder Inc.
“Find him, and you’ve got an easy solve,” the boss said.
“What if I don’t?” O’Hanlon had said, hands fidgeting.
Well, he had, and now the bastard wouldn’t talk to him. And O’Hanlon knew what would happen: he’d sit through this entire concert, listening to music he didn’t understand and probably would hate just to have another crack at being shut out once more.
The curtain rose up and O’Hanlon momentarily lost his train of thought. He leaned back in his seat and look towards the stage, towards the assembled group of about twenty musicians warming up their instruments, waiting to get started.
The buzz finally halted, and the man everyone else had been waiting for strode onstage.
With the first phrase, O’Hanlon understood what the fuss was about. After a minute, he couldn’t think of anything else. By the time the opening piece finished, O’Hanlon was certain of only one thing: the man the crowd had paid to see was a genius.
Days passed, or maybe it was only hours? He never was completely sure how the long the gig was, because Brandwein’s playing seemed to bend time to his will. Or perhaps that of his silver clarinet, capable of acrobatics even the jazz musicians O’Hanlon worshipped couldn’t conquer.
And the music itself, full of emotion and longing that seemed alternately brand new and hundreds of years old. How could one man have the skill to tap into such a wellspring?
But O’Hanlon was most entranced by Brandwein’s demeanor throughout, a mixture of contempt, disdain, arrogance and strangely, understanding. Occasionally he’d play an entire piece with his back to the crowd, yet the music would still bring everyone – O’Hanlon included – near to tears and shouts. Then Brandwein would look back, wipe sweat off his brow, and casually glance out toward the crowd before moving to the next slated tune – all without a word.
“How does he do it?” O’Hanlon said to the elderly woman sitting next to him.
She shrugged. “How does the sun set?”
After the final encore, O’Hanlon didn’t know who looked more spent: Brandwein or himself. The young detective had lived through an entire lifetime in that concert, shedding everything to give way to two simple quests: find Brandwein, and find out what made him tick.
O’Hanlon rose when the rest of the crowd did, but unlike them, he moved his way to the back. Pushing others aside and ignoring their unhappy complaints, he arrived at the dressing room, now wide open.
Brandwein sat, regarding himself in the mirror, but before O’Hanlon could say anything Leo Cohen stepped between them.
“Didn’t you hear what I said to you before, he can’t see you!”
“That was before the show, Cohen. It’s finished now, and I absolutely have to –“
“Oh, let him in,” said the musician in a voice that stunned O’Hanlon. It rasped, it shook, and it seemed wholly unsuited to someone who had just created genius mere minutes before.
Cohen inched to one side, letting O’Hanlon through.
Brandwein turned, staring unblinkingly at the detective for several moments. Then he grinned.
“Frankie! What perfect timing. Good you’re here.”
O’Hanlon looked at Cohen, who shrugged slightly. The words of the young woman at the ticket counter echoed in the detective’s mind: whatever the theater wants…
“Uh, thanks,” said O’Hanlon.
Brandwein glared at his manager. “Well, what are you standing there for? Frankie came specially to see me. Now you’re going to turn him away?”
“I’m sorry, Naftule.”
“All right, all right, you’re sorry. Go on, go home already. I don’t want you hovering over me anymore.”
To O’Hanlon’s amazement, Cohen scurried out of the dressing room without putting up a fuss.
“Why’d he leave so fast?” asked O’Hanlon.
Brandwein shrugged. “Ass-kissing alter kacker. I don’t know. I pay him ten percent, that’s all I care.”
Up close, Brandwein’s magnetism was even more pronounced than onstage. He was shorter than O’Hanlon expected – only five feet five, tops. His nose and lips dominated a proudly Slavic face, befitting a man born in the Old Country. So too was Brandwein’s thickly accented voice, each word more of an attention-grabber than the last.
The musician looked at himself in the mirror. “So what took you so long, Frankie? I thought you’d be here last week.”
O’Hanlon decided to play along.
“I couldn’t make it, Mr. Brandwein. Family trouble.”
“I know those all too well,” said Brandwein. “If my wife had her way I wouldn’t be playing music here and there every night. I’d be home making a proper living, whatever the hell that means.”
“What, you think someone like me doesn’t have problems at home?”
O’Hanlon considered the question. “Well, I…” he stammered.
Brandwein turned around. “Never mind. You’re here now, that’s what matters. But if you expect me to give you a music lesson, then you better see yourself out.”
“I didn’t expect anything at all,” said O’Hanlon truthfully.
“Good. I need a drink. Let’s go.”
Brandwein picked up his clarinet case, humming distractedly. As O’Hanlon followed him out, he smiled to himself. Never know where life – and strangely cuckoo musicians – might take you.
They ended up in a sparsely populated speakeasy further up on2nd Avenue
“I like it here,” explained Brandwein once their drinks – vodka straight-up for him, G&T for O’Hanlon – showed up at the bar. “I don’t get hassled too much.”
“And you don’t like being hassled?”
“Who does? But in my case, I get people asking me for the ‘secrets of the trade.’ Pah! Like I’d ever give those away. You saw me tonight, on stage?”
“I don’t want people stealing my fingering. Ever! Sons of bitches will take everything from you when you least expect it.”
O’Hanlon spent the next hour nursing his drink and letting Brandwein rant about everyone he hated in the music industry.
“Ellstein, that schmuck, he can’t drum worth shit. Always off just enough to screw up my timing. Cherniavsky, I wasn’t sorry to leave. Wouldn’t pay me enough, the sonofabitch. And Tarras!”
Brandwein’s face turned almost purple at the mention of the man’s name. He looked at O’Hanlon meaningfully.
“You don’t like him,” said O’Hanlon, hoping that by stating it he could avoid sounding ignorant.
“Of course I don’t like him! Thinks he can play better than me, just because he’s got a record contract and I don’t? He takes Der Heyser Bulgar and turns it into a goddamn dirge, it’s so boring.”
“Of course he’s boring,” said a new voice. The stranger slid into the empty stool on Brandwein’s left.
Brandwein beamed. “Hey, Louis! Good to see you. Have a drink.” He signaled to the bartender for another vodka.
O’Hanlon’s face paled. What was he going to do now?
When the drink
arrived, Brandwein introduced the other two men. “Louis Buchalter, this is
Frankie Mulholland. Came all the way from
just to talk to me. Gotta admire a man with that kind of gumption, you know?”
Buchalter smiled, and O’Hanlon thought he’d slink straight to the ground. “Certainly do, Nifty. You play a good gig tonight?”
“Ah, it was all right. What’d you think, Frankie?”
“Fantastic,” O’Hanlon croaked. What had he gotten himself into? It was one thing to play along, have a drink or few with Brandwein, and see what he inadvertently revealed. But Buchalter showing up, that was something else entirely. The mob man’s presence would make the NYPD higher-ups shiver, O’Hanlon reckoned.
“So there you have it,” said Brandwein, draining his drink. “A good night.”
“It sure is,” said Buchalter. “But what say we head somewhere else? A little livelier? You in, Frankie?”
O’Hanlon knew he answered the question, but he couldn’t remember it precisely as the night became a blurry haze. O’Hanlon drank and listened and tried desperately not to say anything remotely cop-related. They moved to another bar, then another, and at one point, sometime around 3 A.M., he looked up to the lecherous leer of a topless redhead.
“Want another?” she said.
O’Hanlon looked frantically around the room, decorated in an obscenely bright shade of red, and immediately wanted to burn away the newly formed image of Brandwein getting his rocks off by a moaning blonde. He turned back to the redhead in terror.
She climbed off him. “Gee, you sure enjoyed yourself the first time, sonny. You realize what you’re missin’?”
He didn’t dare look anywhere else but towards the back wall.
“Suit yourself.” She stormed off.
“Wait,” shouted O’Hanlon, “Shouldn’t I pay you?”
The redhead turned back. “Consider it on the house,” she snapped.
The blonde stopped moaning. O’Hanlon thought of praying but knew it wouldn’t do him a damn bit of good. He thought of Celia, but then he felt worse. She’d never forgive him if she found out.
“Get outta here,” Brandwein said to the blonde after putting a handful of bills into her bodice. She disappeared, leaving the two men alone in the room.
Brandwein stared at O’Hanlon in confusion. “Where’d Louis go? Wasn’t he with you?”
“I thought he was with you, Mr. Brandwein.”
“Knock it off, Frankie. It’s Naftule. Think after all those drinks you could skip the formal shit?”
O’Hanlon didn’t know what to say. Most of him wanted to go home and sleep off the horrendous headache he knew would form in the morning, not just from drink.
“You all right?” Brandwein put a hand on O’Hanlon’s shoulder. “You don’t look so good.”
“Think maybe we could leave?”
Brandwein looked around the room like he expected someone else to show up. When nothing changed, he shrugged. “I keep forgetting why I come back here. The girls aren’t what they used to be. What do you think?”
“Never mind. Don’t go home yet, we should have a last round.”
Somehow they poured themselves into a cab which pulled up in front of a hotel about ten minutes or ten years later. The two men staggered through the lobby and up the elevator, which dropped them off in front of room 514.
“It’s on me,” Brandwein slurred.
O’Hanlon threw himself into one of the chairs and put his head in his hands. He wanted to go home so badly, erase every memory of the night that wasn’t already consigned to the trash heap of his brain.
“What, Frankie, you didn’t enjoy yourself?”
O’Hanlon stared up at the musician, a man he couldn’t even begin to fathom. Was this the flip side of genius, the dark side of brilliance?
And didn’t he have some questions to ask?
Because his tongue was loosed and his mind was addled O’Hanlon blurted, “What do you know about the two murders last week?”
Brandwein looked incredulous.
“Why should I know about those?”
“Because you’re supposed to! You’re supposed to!” O’Hanlon couldn’t stop. He screamed and yelled until his face turned blue.
When he finished his tirade, Brandwein grinned.
“I think you should drink a little less, Frankie. You’re going to be like this every music lesson we have together? Tell you what.” The musician reached behind him and thrust something towards O’Hanlon.
“Take this. Practice a little, even a lot. Then come back next week and we’ll talk serious. Okay?”
O’Hanlon grasped the object. He looked at it briefly before glancing back at Brandwein.
“So go home already!”
Only as the cab approached O’Hanlon’s house did he realize that Brandwein had given him his performance clarinet by mistake.
The silver one.
He’d have a hell of a time explaining that to Celia, too.
He never could explain how he rose early the next morning with the worst headache of his young life, but he did, sheer determination propelling him towards the evidence locker room.
He thrust out the clarinet towards the bewildered storage keeper. “Take this,” said O’Hanlon, hoping he sounded remotely sober.
“What’s it for?”
“What do you think?”
The storage keeper didn’t give an answer. Maybe it would have been better if he had, O’Hanlon reflected on the way back to the office.
Because he didn’t really have one, either.
“Hey, Frank, take a look at this!”
O’Hanlon pretended not to hear it. He didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to be sorting through whatever useless garbage the Department had accrued, and certainly didn’t want to be standing in a dingy little back room with whippersnappers like Mickey Gallagher.
“Frank, did you hear me? Look at this. You won’t believe your eyes!”
“I’ve been here almost forty years, Gallagher. Not a hell of a lot surprises me.”
“Come on, won’t you at least see what it is?” said Gallagher.
O’Hanlon knew what would happen next. He’d ignore it some more, the kid would start whining and pouting and then it could get nasty. Better to humor him and get on with sifting through the rest of this shit.
He walked over to where Gallagher stood. The kid’s hands were empty.
“Well,” O’Hanlon said impatiently, “What is this mystery item?”
Gallagher rummaged through the box of what used to be highly classified NYPD evidence, but was now simply stuff to sell cheap after at least twenty years of storage. O’Hanlon figured whatever it was that excited the kid so much, it would probably fetch maybe twenty bucks, tops.
Gallagher’s face lit up, and he lifted something out of the box. Something long, thin and silver.
“Whaddaya think? Look at the craftsmanship on this!”
O’Hanlon looked, and nearly had a heart attack.
Gallagher must have seen the older man’s color change to green. “Frank? Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
What’s wrong is that my life just flashed before my fucking eyes, O’Hanlon thought. What’s wrong is that I finally have to make good on a promise.
What’s wrong is that I can’t do this by myself.
“Nothing,” said O’Hanlon.
“I hate when you do that, Frank! You always shut me out. We’ve been working together six months now, going through item after item for these police auctions, and I swear, you never say a damn thing worthwhile to me at all. That’s not a good way to treat a partner, is it?”
“It’s not that.”
“Like hell it isn’t. You show up here every morning, angry at the goddamn world because you think you don’t belong here. Who does? I know I don’t. But I try to do the best job I can, try to treat it like a contest. That maybe amidst the thousands of utter junk there’ll be buried treasure. Even if it’ll never be mine, like that clarinet you’re holding.” Gallagher’s expression changed. “Hey, it means something to you, doesn’t it? Is that what’s getting your goat?”
O’Hanlon faced his so-called partner. Mickey Gallagher was the epitome of bland: average height, average weight, average looks, nothing special. The only thing worth noticing was his voice, a musically high tenor that seemed a lousy fit for someone so average. And at twenty-three, so callow. Which O’Hanlon could safely say wasn’t a word ever used to describe him, whether at twenty-three or his current fifty-three.
But maybe the kid had a point. O’Hanlon’s career had been derailed decades ago, and he’d long accepted he’d never get promoted beyond desk duty. Moving to the police auction unit fifteen years ago was more of a blessing than he would ever admit to anyone, and it was a smooth ride to retirement from there than just about anywhere.
His marriage had died soon after, when Celia finally realized his ambitions would never live up to hers. Not that he missed her. Or anyone, for that matter.
So why not give a little? Open up a bit?
Someone had to hear the story. Why not Gallagher?
“Yeah,” O’Hanlon said haltingly, “That clarinet means something to me.”
Gallagher waited expectantly.
“How much time we got in here?” asked O’Hanlon.
“It’s only one-thirty, Frank. We’ve got till four.”
“Good.” He picked up the clarinet and gave it a closer look. He couldn’t believe what good shape it was in.
“I gotta go,” O’Hanlon said. “You can cover me?”
“But Frank! You can’t –“
It was too late. O’Hanlon strode out, taking the clarinet with him.
* * *
A couple of phone calls and a hastily drawn map was all O’Hanlon needed to make his way towards the Danziger Home for the Aged. He drove past Allentown, taking exit 8 off the highway and going about five hundred yards before pulling up to the ugliest building he’d ever seen.
Figures that a musician would be sent to die here, O’Hanlon thought.
He’d wrapped the clarinet carefully and stored it in a leather bag in a last-gasp attempt to keep it in the best condition. Even if it probably didn’t matter: would Brandwein be able to play it anymore?
It surprised O’Hanlon that he needed to know.
He was greeted at the door by rows of wheelchair-bound patients, all eyeing him like he was fresh meat. Thank god he wasn’t here to see any of these decaying senior citizens; just looking at them made him want to cut out as quickly as possible.
“May I help you?”
The dissonant voice of the receptionist broke through O’Hanlon’s thoughts.
“I’m here to see Mr. Brandwein.”
“Sign in. Room 4511.”
He followed the directions exactly and soon stood in front of a pale yellow room, door wide open. O’Hanlon thought of leaving. Don’t be a fool, he chastised himself, when you’ve come all this way.
He walked in and was shocked by what he saw.
Brandwein was hooked up to several tubes, one coming out of his nose, the other from his throat. If there was to be a conversation it would be one-sided at best.
O’Hanlon cast his eyes down, not wanting to look at the fallen image of the musician he had worshiped and hated.
Who was Naftule Brandwein? Curious enigma, or something else?
O’Hanlon opened the bag and took out the clarinet. He unwrapped it and held it out towards Brandwein.
“I’m sorry,” said O’Hanlon, stumbling over his words. “I was in way over my head that night. So lost, looking for something. I’m not even sure what it was, to be honest. I should never have taken this in the first place. It didn’t prove anything, didn’t help in any way, and I robbed you of the thing you valued most. Truth is, I forgot about it until the damn thing showed up the other day, but now I understand why I needed to be reminded.”
Brandwein’s eyes flickered with understanding. And then, or at least it seemed that way to O’Hanlon, a trace of amusement.
“Think it’s too late for a music lesson?”
Brandwein held up the long-lost clarinet to his lips. And even though the instrument emitted a single ghost note before the clarinetist set it down on his lap, it was the sweetest sound Frank O’Hanlon ever heard in his entire life.