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Bagatelle

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"But who would stab a music critic?" I whispered to David as we huddled with our briefcases in a corner of Bernard Landau's massive music room.

"Who wouldn't?" David shrugged. "His review last week of Xiao-xing Huang's American debut was brutal. He said she crucified the piano." David kept very close track of our clients' activities. Personal service was his watchword. It was one reason he was the most sought-after estate lawyer in Hartford County. It was also why we had come to Bernard at his splendid restored Victorian mansion in the West End instead of requiring him to come to our downtown offices ten minutes away.

And now, we were waiting to be questioned while the police examined the magnificent music room that had morphed unceremoniously into a crime scene.

Floor-to-ceiling bookcases and cabinets surrounded us. Books and music scores filled every inch of visible shelf space; I suspected the cabinets housed an elaborate sound system. The wood-paneled ceiling arched above us. A row of French doors, their long windows covered by sheer white panels, admitted muted light into the room. A large cherry worktable with a single upright chair occupied the corner nearest ours. The police had already snapped pictures of the laptop and papers that had been stacked with precision on its surface, and one latex-gloved officer was in the process of slipping them into large plastic bags. A gleaming black grand piano proclaimed its authority in the center of the room while in the far corner, trim officers in dark blue uniforms with "H.P.D." in gold on their backs measured blood stains on the Oriental carpet. In the doorway to the foyer, two men with a rolling stretcher waited patiently to retrieve the critic's diminutive body.

Since I couldn't see much action, I perused the nearest bookshelves. Most of the titles were in German, French, or Italian; few were in English. I wondered whether these volumes were for show or if he had really read them. Neither answer would have surprised me. David had represented Bernard for twenty years before I joined the firm last autumn, and he claimed the critic was brilliant, pretentious, fluent in several languages, and more knowledgeable than nearly anyone about Baroque music. I took his word for it: I'd fumbled my way through four years of piano lessons and flunked first-year French. Not that our client would have known of my shortcomings since he spoke exclusively to David. After our initial meeting at which he'd looked straight past me as I extended my hand, I asked David if Bernard was a misogynist or if he simply disliked everyone who was taller than him. David assured me it wasn't personal: "He considers nearly everyone to be his inferior."

Everyone except maybe his lady of the moment. I might not have read Bernard's critical diatribes, but it was difficult to miss his carefully orchestrated public appearances. Impeccably attired, his bald head shining as if he'd waxed it, Bernard attended every major musical event in the northeast, always with an elegant-looking young woman on his arm. Last Sunday night, the local news program showed a few seconds of footage from the symphony's fundraiser. Sure enough, there was pint-sized Bernard with a tall, lithe blonde in a silver dress so tight that if she'd ever missed a day at the gym, we'd all have known it. Bernard looked bored and superior, and the blonde looked furious until she noticed the camera, at which point she delivered a forced smile.

The police continued to snap pictures. I craned my neck to see if they'd had the temerity to draw a chalk outline on Bernard's carpet. David glanced at his Rolex. I knew what he was thinking: not only could we not bill the estate for this aborted meeting, but now we were wasting billable time. No one ever accused David of sentimentality.

"Let's see if we can move this along," he murmured. He approached the nearest policeman. "Excuse me, Officer. How much longer will we be here? We have another appointment scheduled."

The policeman, a tall redhead with a scruffy mustache, straightened. He looked David up and down as if assessing just how polite he needed to be to this person whose custom-tailored suit had probably cost more than a city police officer earned in a month. "We're interviewing the housekeeper now," he said. "You'll be next. Ten minutes. Fifteen, maybe."

David turned toward me. In a voice obviously intended to carry over all other conversations in the room, he said, "Michelle, please call Lynn and let her know we're delayed."

"No," said the policeman. "No calls out until we've talked to you."

"Then I'd appreciate your people making the call," David said, unperturbed. "One way or another, it is necessary to let our other clients know we have not abandoned them."

The officer glared. "You'll have to wait," he said. David merely held his gaze. After a minute, the officer turned to a thin young woman who was making notes. "See how much longer McGuire's going to be," he instructed. She slipped out of the room, and David said pleasantly, "Thank you, Officer." He returned to the corner where I waited and muttered, "Ten minutes, my foot. Go to the bathroom and make the call."

As soon as the policeman turned back to his investigation, I reached into my briefcase and slipped my phone into the pocket of my blazer. With as much innocence and politeness as I could manufacture, I approached the red-haired officer and told him I needed to use the bathroom. He looked exasperated. "Not that one," he said, gesturing toward a doorway I hadn't noticed. "Ramos, take her to the one upstairs." A lanky dark-haired man beckoned for me to follow him.

The staircase was broad, glossy, and dark, the wall crowded with oil paintings of people I assumed were Bernard's ancestors since I could think of no other reason to display such unattractive artwork. The thick red runner on the stairs muffled our steps. As we neared the top, I heard a woman crying. Ramos didn't seem to notice. When we passed the first room with an open door, I saw her, face hidden in her hands, shoulders shaking, but not a gray hair out of place. She was Bernard's long-time housekeeper. Barely an hour ago, she'd opened the door to admit us, her lips pressed together in what felt like disapproval. She led the way to the music room, opened the door, and immediately screamed, running to the corner before I even realized what lay in the shadow. His head rested on something that looked like a large paperback. I caught sight of something white on the floor beside him just as she threw herself on his body. David pulled her off her late employer while barking at me to call 911.

She wore a bathrobe and slippers now. They must have bagged her blood-stained clothes for analysis. It irked me that they hadn't even allowed her to dress before interrogating her. Having shared the moment of discovery, I felt a kinship with her. "Can I talk to…?" Her name was escaping me.

Ramos ignored my question and pointed to a door. "There."

Bernard's guest bathroom was nearly as large as the kitchen in my tiny apartment. A pristine white clawfoot tub stood on a platform under a picture window, presumably so that one might gaze upon the clouds while bathing. The sparkling facilities even included a bidet. I was tempted to try it out, but David was waiting, so I texted Nick, the other second-year associate in our department, that we were delayed due to Bernard's murder. "Check newsfeed," I added. The bathroom overlooked the back lawn with its frame of red-tinged maple trees, but it wouldn't have surprised me if news trucks were crowding the circular driveway by now.

Unnecessarily, I ran water and flushed the toilet, emerging to see Ramos standing precisely where I'd left him. "Thanks," I said. We walked back down the hall past the weeping housekeeper. I commented, "Poor woman. This must be so hard for her. She's worked for him forever."

"You know her?" For the first time, Ramos seemed to find me interesting.

"I've met her a couple times—Elise!"

"What?"

"That's her name. Elise Hegel. I remember now." The first time I'd met her, she'd instructed me to call her Elise even though David called her Fraulein Hegel. It felt very servant-to-servant, as though she considered Bernard and David to be on some elevated plane that she and I were well beneath.

The promised ten minutes stretched into an hour. Eventually, David and I were taken into separate rooms and questioned about what we'd seen and what we knew. Since I'd seen little and knew less, my interview was brief. David's took longer.

"What did they ask you?" I inquired when we were finally on our way back to the office.

"Why we were there. What we saw. What we knew."

"What did you tell them?" All I knew was that Bernard had summoned us the day before to change his will. My role at these meetings was a combination of student and stenographer.

"I reminded them that the attorney-client privilege survives death. I imagine they'll find a judge who rules otherwise, but until then, Bernard's legal matters remain confidential." He glanced at me.

"I know," I said. I might be a second-year, but I wasn't an idiot.

As David pulled into his reserved spot in the parking garage, I asked, "What did he want to change?"

"Ultimately, everything," David said as we disembarked. His Mercedes emitted a quiet, decorous chirp when he set the alarm. "You'll recall that he wanted to create a foundation to fund and support studies in musical criticism." I nodded to show that I did. "We were setting up a trust, and the foundation would have been the sole beneficiary. Last week, he called to inform me that he wanted to change his will so that when he passed—which we obviously didn't expect this soon—his entire estate would go to the trust."

I'd seen enough cop shows to perk up. "So, somebody has a motive."

David pushed the elevator button. "Many somebodies, if that's your standard," he said. "His current will includes at least twenty charitable bequests and many more individual ones, including his staff. Family money is a wonderful thing. I suggested that he could keep some of the current bequests and still fund the foundation quite generously, but he was adamant. Everything was to go to the foundation. It was to be his immortality—his term, not mine. But since the plans for the foundation were still in process when he passed, the current will governs." The elevator whooshed up to the sixteenth floor, and the doors glided open to reveal our tasteful reception area, complete with one of our three impeccably groomed receptionists, all women in their sixties who considered their position to be a career rather than a stepping stone. "Good morning, Carole," David said.

"Good morning, Mr. Sheldon, Ms. Dunfrey." Carole did not believe that staff should address attorneys by their first names. She and Elise Hegel would have gotten along. Carole advised us that Mr. and Mrs. West had arrived for their eleven o'clock appointment. In view of the delay in our return, she'd taken the liberty of arranging for coffee, pastries, and a fresh copy of the day's newspaper for them. I envied them; we hadn't had so much as a glass of water all morning. David thanked her and asked her to let the Wests know we would be with them momentarily.

As soon as we opened the heavy glass doors separating the hallway from the reception area, the excited buzz of voices swarmed around us. David cleared his throat. Almost as one, everyone turned and fell silent.

"I assume you are aware that one of our clients has passed on," he said. In the trusts and estates department, death was not an uncommon event. "Like any other client, Mr. Landau is entitled to his privacy. The attorney-client privilege prohibits any of you from speaking about his legal matters to anyone, including the police if they should choose to contact this office." He turned to me. "Why don't you put your briefcase away, and then please join me in the conference room. Mr. and Mrs. West have waited long enough."

Another client, another will. In our department, the issue wasn't how you died. It was what you left behind.

And to whom.


It was past eight o'clock when I closed the last file on my computer. I was ravenous, but David was still there, and I knew the cardinal unspoken rule for associates: never leave before your supervising partner.

I walked down the hall and tapped on his open door. He looked up from his computer, the slightest fatigue showing. He was just shy of his sixtieth birthday, but at that moment, I could see how he would look as an old man. "Come in," he said. "Are you through for the evening?"

"I think so." I wasn't quite asking permission.

"It was a challenging day, but you handled it very well. I was pleased." It was as good as high-five. All at once, I had a surge of energy.

"I've been thinking," I said. He gestured for me to sit in one of the wingback chairs in front of his desk. "When we went into the room—I mean, it all happened so fast—but wasn't there a piece of paper over where Bernard…was?"

A slight smile tipped the corners of David's mouth. "You're very observant," he said. Two compliments in five minutes. I could have worked all night.

"Did he leave a note?" Victims always seemed to do this in murder mysteries.

"Actually, it was a piece of music."

"What, like his favorite song?" This seemed odd for a curmudgeonly critic.

"I have no idea, but the police seem to think it may mean something."

"Why? What was the song?"

David shook his head ruefully. "After years of attending the symphony, I still can't tell one piece from another—although I don't believe they call them 'songs.' This one was torn from a book of Beethoven piano pieces."

I dug into the recesses of my memory to those long-ago piano lessons. "Beethoven was German, wasn't he?"

"He was."

"And so's the housekeeper!" I felt triumphant.

"And so was Bernard, and so are many of his staff," David said, deflating me. "Bernard preferred hiring his countrymen. He felt they understood him. Less likely to take offense at what some might see as brusqueness."

There was nothing I could say to that, not being German or having the slightest understanding of our late client. "So what do the police think the music means?"

David shrugged ever so slightly. "When I last spoke with Lieutenant Pfeiffer, he had no idea."

"What? When did you talk to the police?"

He leaned back, fingertips touching. "We've spoken several times today. The lieutenant wished to find out more about Bernard's estate plans. Apparently, he's had the same thought you expressed about beneficiaries protecting their inheritances. In the course of mutual ferreting-out of information, it may occasionally be appropriate to disclose facts that will ultimately become public anyway, such as those contained in a will which will shortly be submitted to probate. And so, while I obviously did not discuss Bernard's desire to change his will, I did advise the lieutenant that the operative will includes a number of specific bequests, including one to a Miss Penny Harvey."

"Who's she?"

"One of Bernard's lady friends," he said. "One of the longer-lasting ones. At least, long-lasting enough for him to put her in his will back in the summer."

I thought back to the Sunday evening news. "Tall, blonde, and toned?"

"Possibly."

"Because if that's her, she and Bernard had some sort of disagreement at the symphony benefit." David raised an eyebrow. "It was on the news," I said. "The benefit, not the disagreement. And if he was going to disinherit her—" I began, but David held up his hand.

"He was," he said. "But that information is privileged. Still, I expect the Ms. Harvey angle will occupy the police for a few days."

"What do you mean?"

"According to my new friend, Lieutenant Pfeiffer, the piece of music Bernard was clasping was Beethoven's Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor." I must have looked as blank as I felt, because he asked, "Do you know what a bagatelle is?" I shook my head. "It's a pittance, a nothing," he said.

"A penny is a pittance!" For an instant, I felt like Miss Marple reincarnated. "He meant Penny Harvey!"

David smiled. "You're reaching. As will the lieutenant, I expect."

"But what else could it mean?"

"Possibly nothing at all. Perhaps he tore out the wrong page. The corner was dark, and the man was dying. In any event, I doubt Ms. Harvey is responsible."

"But why not? Wait, I'll pull up the news broadcast. You'll see. She looked like she hated him." I took out my phone and started to tap.

"Among other things, Ms. Harvey boarded a flight to San Francisco at seven o'clock last evening. When Bernard called me yesterday morning, he told me he and Ms. Harvey had parted ways, he'd arranged for her to go home to her family, and h—e wished to execute a codicil immediately to remove her from his will. That is why we were at his home this morning. It seems there was a personal trainer at her gym with whom she had…well, gotten very personal. Bernard said he'd been planning to surprise Ms. Harvey at the appropriate time with the news that she was a beneficiary of his estate, but when he learned of her dalliance with the trainer, he elected for obvious reasons not to mention it. Then, wishing to avoid a scene, he waited until they were in public to tell her the relationship was over."

What a bastard. The question wasn't why he'd been stabbed—it was why nobody'd done it before now. "She could have hired a hit man," I offered.

"Possible, but unlikely," David said. "Debutantes rarely have contact with that element of society. Although I suppose the trainer could have assisted. Still, since she didn't know of either her inclusion in the will or Bernard's intent to remove her, she had no particular reason to kill him beyond wounded pride at being jilted. It seems like a thin motive, although I suppose people have killed for less."

"Did anyone else know Penny Harvey was in the will?"

"I imagine a member of Bernard's staff could have overheard something when he and I met to discuss adding her to the will. It was a couple months ago—July, maybe. The windows were probably open—I don't remember now. But even if they heard, why would they care? It wasn't as though he was planning to cut any of them out to add her."

I considered this. Then a thought struck as I recalled the weeping housekeeper. "You don't suppose—he couldn't have been referring to her, could he? The housekeeper? I mean, as a bagatelle?"

David's eyes widened in shock. "Bernard would never have referred to her in that way," he said. "Fraulein Hegel has worked for the family for—oh, probably close to forty years. His mother hired her when he was a child. Whatever other failings he had, he would never have shown Fraulein Hegel such disrespect." He clicked the mouse a few times and rose. "I'm heading home. You should do the same. We'll let the police sort this out."

Vaguely disappointed, I rose. This was so much more excitement than one usually encountered in estate work. I hated to let it go.


That night, I dreamed about the scene in Bernard's music room. Blood on the rug, proof that he'd dragged himself over to that particular corner, that he knew exactly what he was looking for. Fraulein Hegel's unearthly screech when she saw him. A music book on the floor, the jagged edge of the torn-out page, the blood-stained page itself clutched in his fist. David pulling the hysterical housekeeper off the body. The sirens, the police, the swarm of activity as we stood in a corner, watching.

When I arrived at the office, David was not yet in. I checked online, but the news reports offered nothing new. There was no mention of the torn-out page. I felt smug with my insider knowledge. Not that I had an inkling about its significance.

I spent most of the morning researching an objection to a claim against a child's estate. The mother had abandoned the family when the boy was a toddler. On his ninth birthday, the boy drowned at summer camp. Now that a hefty settlement with the camp had been reached, the mother had resurfaced and was trying to get half. And everybody thinks estate law is so sedate, I mused.

I gathered my research and buzzed David to see if he was free to discuss it. "Come down," he said. Oddly, I could hear music in the background as he spoke. When I entered his office, piano music sparkled in the usually silent room.

"What's that?" I asked.

He smiled almost sheepishly. "Beethoven piano pieces," he said. "I borrowed it from my wife." The CD case sat on his desk beside the phone.

"May I?" I asked. At his nod, I picked it up. Listening, I said, "This one sounds awfully familiar. I think I might have even played it when I was a kid."

David checked the listing on his computer. "It's the Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor."

"You couldn't prove it by me," I said, turning the case over. Idly, I scanned the list of pieces. Piano Trio in B flat, Op. 97 ("Archduke"). Piano Sonata No 8 in C minor ("Pathétique"). Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor ("Moonlight"). Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor…

And then I saw it. "David," I said, my voice unsteady.

"What?" His gaze was intense, probing. I handed him the case and pointed to the listing for the Bagatelle. His eyes widened. Then he leaned back. "That explains it," he said, half to himself.

"Explains what?"

"Why she threw herself on him that way. I saw the page in his hand, but she knew what it meant." He turned the case over in his hands. "I wonder whether the police have figured this out yet."

"Depends whether they're classical music lovers, I guess. But why would she—"

"Why does anybody? It could have been anything. All these years of watching him with other women, ignoring her—for all we know, she could have been in love with him. More likely, I suspect, the threat of being disinherited. She'd probably heard him speak of the foundation. Maybe she overheard him telling me he wanted to leave everything to it—which would have meant that after forty years of service, she'd be left with nothing. When she found out we were coming yesterday morning, she may have thought it was her last chance. Under his current will, she would have been set for life."

"'Would have been'?"

"She can't take under the will if she's convicted of murdering him. It's called a slayer statute. You can't benefit from murder."

I watched him turn the case over and over. "So, what happens now? Do we call the police?"

"I think we have to. But first, I need to make a call. She'll require excellent representation. Bernard would have wanted that." He glanced at me as he picked up the phone, and I knew he wanted to make this call in private.

"Shall I close the door?" I asked even as I reached for the knob.

"Please."

I walked back to my office, the familiar melody playing in my mind's ear. The Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor, known to music lovers the world over by its common name.

Für Elise.

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