Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 41Greg Bear
"We didn't think you had. Believe it or not, we know you pretty well. Not so well you can't surprise us, but well enough to believe you didn't do anything self-destructive. We just think it might not be good for you to stay cooped up in this house all day, going through old papers."
"I've been getting out." He told John about the request from UCLA and pointedly mentioned Kristine. "I also take long walks."
Michael led him through the back porch into the house. John inspected the water heater.
"Looks like the tank's okay, but I'd like, to drain it and remove the sediment, check the bottom and see if it's going to rust out soon. Any problems elsewhere?" John paused and tapped his knuckle on the paneling covering a broad bare space between the heater cabinet and the pantry door.
So what could he ultimately tell his father - that he didn't think normal life was going to prevail, that something indefinitely enormous was approaching?
"I don't think so," Michael said. "I can call in maintenance people if I have to."
"Come on, give your old Dad a chance to feel needed. Is there any better carpenter in Southern California?"
"No," Michael said, grinning.
The door chimes rang. Michael went to the front door and opened it to find Robert Dopso shifting restlessly from leg to leg on the front porch. "Hi," Dopso said, stretching out his hand. "I saw you checking out the foundations. Thought I'd see if you needed some extra kibitzing."
Michael grinned. Three would make the conversation less awkward. "Sure. My father's here. We're looking at the service porch now. Come on in."
"Saturday boredom, you know," Dopso said. "Bachelor's lament."
Michael introduced them. "Robert grew up here," he told his father. "He and his mother knew Arno and Golda well."
"Speaking of my mother, she's invited you over for dinner tonight," Dopso said. "Another reason I came over."
John was still inspecting the wall. "Is there a closet or something on the other side of this?" he asked. The rap of his knuckles on the paneling made a hollow echo.
"No," Michael said.
"Odd to find an unused space this big." John looked down at the floor and kneeled. His finger followed a thin arc-shaped scrape in the linoleum just beyond the edge of the paneling. "Used to be a door here. I don't think Arno ever needed to hide skeletons .. do you?"
Michael frowned and shook his head. Dopso bent down and ran his own finger over the join.
"I don't remember any closet here."
"Still, there was a closet or something, and now it's sealed up." There was a twinkle in John's eye. He winked at Dopso. "Would Arno take it amiss if we investigated someday, when you have time? Probably find nothing but spider webs…"
"Probably," Michael said. He didn't want his father or Dopso involved, somehow. The discovery was both exciting and unnerving.
"Come on," John said, walking into the kitchen. "Where's your sense of adventure? An old house, a mysterious space… Maybe Arno hid his treasure in there."
"Maybe," Michael aid.
"That'd be interesting," Dopso said. "Something to look forward to in a dull neighborhood. Not that it's always been so dull." His glance at Michael seemed to be an attempt to convey some silent message. Michael hadn't the slightest idea what Dopso was hinting at.
After a few more spot checks, they stood in the foyer, and his father firmly invited him to dinner the next evening. "Let your mother lay out a feast for us. It's in her nature to worry, Michael."
"I know," Michael said, still uneasy. "Dinner tonight at Robert's, and tomorrow night with you and Mom. No lack of hospitality."
"Good. Six o'clock? And let me know when you want to pry loose some paneling."
After Dopso and his father had left, Michael returned to the service porch. He tapped the paneling, idly wondering whether he should feel for secret levers or buttons. It seemed to be nailed tight.
He found a flashlight and went outside to peer into the crawlspace again. Prying out the vent his father had replaced, he shined the light under the house and followed the contours of beams, braces, wiring and pipes. The light fell against a dark gray wall of concrete approximately under the service porch.
There was a basement.
Wiping his hands on his pants legs, Michael went to the garage and searched through a chest of tools for something with which to remove the panel. He found a pry bar and a claw hammer and carried them through the back door, setting them on the floor of the service porch.
When had the basement been sealed? He didn't remember any doorway when he had been a frequent visitor to the Wal-tiri house, almost six years ago, Earth time.
But he hadn't been in the service porch often, either.
Could the door have been sealed during the five years he was away, after Golda's death? Or had Waltiri sealed it himself?
Here was his chance, he thought. He knew there was something unusual in the basement. When a man - or a mage - like Waltiri sealed a doorway off, there had to be good reason. At any rate, Michael could have his father witness the opening, see whatever there was to see, and perhaps then be prepared for the entire story…
But if the basement held something dangerous, then Michael did not want his father present. John could not throw a shadow or use any other tricks to escape.
He ran his hand over the panel again, feeling it carefully not for secret latches but to gather some sensation, a clue. He concentrated on what lay behind, closing his eyes and pressing his palm flat against the wood.
But then, the Crane Women had not gifted him with the boon of prescience or second sight. No guiding voices gave him clues, ambiguous or otherwise.
Taking pry bar in hand, he began to remove the trim from the panel edge, cringing at the squeak of nails being forced out. With the strips removed, he inserted the bar in the gap between panel and wall frame and shoved.
The panel held; he succeeded only in bruising his palms. He tried again, with no better result, and moved the bar to another vantage.
After several minutes of fruitless effort, he noticed that the panel was wobbling a bit in its seat and that the nails holding it fast had poked their heads a fraction of an inch above the surface. With the claw hammer, he removed one of the upper-corner nails and put the bar there, shoving against it with all his might. For this he was rewarded with a groan of wood and a half-inch of give, as well as several more nailheads ready for the claw.
In ten minutes, he had loosened the panel sufficiently to grip it with both hands. He pulled it suddenly free and fell back against the washing machine. Propping the heavy three-quarter-inch plywood panel in the kitchen doorway, he surveyed what was revealed: a door, pristine white, like virtually every other interior door in the house, with a brass knob instead of crystal and a perfectly innocent air.
There was a lock beneath the knob, and in the lock, a key.
Michael reached out and twisted the key and then the knob, and the door opened smoothly inward, revealing darkness. Dry, stale air wafted out, tangy with dust. There was also a sweet, flowery fragrance, somehow familiar, overlaid by an odor richer and less easily described. He pocketed the key.
On the right wall was a push-button switch. He flicked it, and at the base of a steep flight of stairs, a bare, clear bulb cast a dour yellow glow.
Michael walked down the first flight, turned the corner, and peered into the half-lit gloom below. At the end of a second flight of steps, at right angle to the first, was a cubicle barely four yards square, with a low roof. The cubicle was filled with boxes, some of them covered by a dark fabric tarp. To his right, cramped close to the steps, sat a large black armoire. Michael wondered how such a bulky piece of furniture could have been brought into the basement.
He descended the four final steps, his shadow falling huge across the boxes. The light was in such a position that he could see almost nothing in front of him, since his shadow obscured anything he approached.
He turned toward the armoire and opened
one door. The interior, barely visible, was filled with small boxes stuffed with papers. He pulled out a drawer and found more papers: envelopes, packets tied with string, a small wooden cigar box stuffed full with what appeared to be letters. A small wine rack with three dusty bottles had been jammed in the lower corner.
Michael swore under his breath and ascended the stairs to get a flashlight. Returning, he played the beam over the contents of the armoire, seeing that most of the papers were letters, and most of the letters were in German. Curious, he removed a bottle from the rack and read the label, with some difficulty deciphering the fraktur lettering.
The label carried a sundial, the gnomon casting two shadows. Beneath the lettering was a rose and a cluster of red grapes. He replaced the bottle carefully.
On an upper shelf above the drawers, he spotted a black looseleaf notebook, its spine rippled. The heavy sweet odor…
(And he remembered what that fragrance reminded him of - himself, whenever he had touched water in the Realm - the odor of the bearer of a Song of Power.)
… intensified as he opened the notebook. The paper within seemed to squirm under the flashlight beam, shimmering like a film of oil on water, the writing surrounded by warped dimples of oily red, purple and green.
It was a music manuscript. Holding his finger under the title on the first page, he was able to still the play of light enough to read:
Das Unendlichkeit Konzert
von Arno Waltiri
Each turned page exuded a stronger, more clearly defined perfume, until Michael could stand no more. The cubicle seemed to close down around him, oppressing him with the mixed smells of sweet rain, decaying flowers, dust and endless abandonment. He closed the notebook and shook his head, snorting.
He doubted the notebook and the manuscript within had had these peculiar qualities when the music was first penned. Since that time, something had altered the very material on which the concerto had been written.
He shuddered and replaced the manuscript, closing the ar-moire doors.
In the clear April afternoon light in the back yard, Michael squatted on the grass and picked at a few blades, face crossed with intense thought.
Everything was laid out before him; he had only to choose what to investigate first. Which gate to take.
He did not have the luxury of not choosing.
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Robert invited Michael in and introduced his mother.
Mrs. Dopso was in her mid-sixties, sandy hair frosted with grey, frame small and delicate.
" I'm so glad we're finally getting a chance to meet!" she enthused, fluttering one hand as if shooing away moths.
One of her blue eyes canted upward with perpetual concern, and a blissful smile lighted on her face frequently as she spoke.
They sat down to dinner within minutes of six o'clock, shadows lying deep in the old house, which was much smaller than the Waltiri home. Robert explained that his mother's favorite hobby was saving electricity. She lighted candles in brass holders on the table, her expression grave as she applied match to wick, then grateful as the flame grew.
"I'd rather let others have the electricity, those who need it more," she said. "Improve our country's productivity, pump it into big factories."
"She's a bit hazy on how the power net operates," Robert explained.
"Perhaps, perhaps," Mrs. Dopso said lightly. "I'm just so pleased to have Michael as a guest. We have so much to talk about."
"Perhaps not all at once," Robert suggested.
"My son. Have you ever heard such a son?" She hurried into the kitchen, hands twisting slowly back and forth at her sides, and returned with a bowl heaped high with steamed vegetables. Next came a cheese and tuna casserole, followed by a plate heaped high with uniformly sliced bread of virginal whiteness. "It's not a feast," she said. "It's just food, but the talk is more important than the dinner."
"Mother knows you're the caretaker for the Waltiri estate." Robert scooped vegetables onto his plate. He handed the casserole to Michael, who took a generous portion. Thanks to his upbringing - and a few months of deprivation - he had nothing against plain food.
"If we start talking now, we won't finish eating until midnight, and it will all be cold," Mrs. Dopso said. "So we will… um… skirt around the main topic and just fill our tummies. Then we'll… yes." She smiled and placed a modest forkful of casserole into her mouth as an example.
They exchanged only light pleasantries until the meal was finished. Michael felt slightly apprehensive. Mrs. Dopso and her son were being politely mysterious, and that bothered him; they behaved as if they were privy to knowledge that he might find useful.
Robert cleared the table and brought out a bottle of wine. Mrs. Dopso bit her lower lip as he held out the bottle for Michael's inspection.
The label was similar to that on the bottle he had found in the newly opened cellar. The double-shadowed sundial, the rose and the red grapes, the fraktur lettering.
"This is our last bottle. We thought we would open it tonight," Robert said. "Mr. Waltiri gave it as a gift to my father almost fifty years ago. You might have heard of the gentleman who provided it to Mr. Waltiri."
Michael raised an eyebrow.
"His name was David Clarkham. He was a friend of Mr. Waltiri's, although I gather they had a falling out before I was born."
"Yes, dear, a year or two before you were born," Mrs. Dopso reiterated.
"My father met Mr. Clarkham several times and was very impressed by him. Mr. Clarkham was a connoisseur of wine. He tended to talk about unusual vintages. German wines mostly. Many of them my father had never heard of, and he was himself quite a connoisseur."
"But all this," said Mrs. Dopso portentously, "is neither here nor there."
"No. Father last drank one of these bottles fifteen years ago, and judged it quite good, if unusual."
"Do you remember what he said?" Mrs. Dopso asked.
"Yes, 'A bit otherworldly, with a most unusual finish.'"
They seemed to expect a reaction from Michael. "I found several bottles like that today," he said.
"Good! Then this isn't the last. Notice there's no clue as to what kind of wine it is. Red, obviously - but what variety of grapes?"
Michael shook his head.
"What we're leading up to is that we're curious about that house. We've lived next to it for a very long time."
"One morning, very early," Mrs. Dopso said, her face almost radiant in the candlelight, "I got out of bed and looked over the cinderblock wall. It was foggy, and I wasn't sure I saw things properly. My husband was on a business trip, so I called out Robert - poor, sleepy child - to confirm or deny."
"I confirmed," Robert said. "1 was eight."
"The house was absolutely covered with birds," Mrs. Dopso said breathlessly. "Large dark birds with red breasts and wing-tips. Blackbirds and robins the size of crows."
"She means, with the characteristics of blackbirds and robins, but crow-sized."
"And sparrows. And other birds I recognized. They blanketed the roof, and they lined up along the wall. All silent."
"Hitchcock, you know," Robert said with a grin. "Scared the daylights out of me."
"And when the fog lifted, they were gone. But that's not all. Sometimes we'd see Mr. Waltiri and Golda - dear Golda - leave the house in their car, the predecessor of the one you drive now - funny-looking thing - and after they had gone, when the house must have been empty-"
"We'd hear somebody playing the piano," Robert said breathlessly, leaning forward.
"Playing it beautifully, just lovely music."
Robert uncorked the bottle and poured the wine into crystal glasses. Michael sipped the deep reddish-amber liquid. He had never tasted anything like it. It was totally outside his experience of wines, which admittedly was not broad. The aftertas
te was mellow and complex and lingered long moments after he had swallowed, succession upon succession of flavors discovering themselves on his tongue. The flavors stopped suddenly, leaving only a clean blankness. He took another sip. Mrs. Dopso closed her eyes and did the same.
"As wonderful as I remember it," she commented. "To my dear husband." They toasted the man whose name Michael did not know.
"I think perhaps the only person who was not aware that something was going on," Mrs. Dopso said, "was Golda. Arno protected her fiercely. Nothing would happen to dear Golda while he was around. But you know… after he departed, died, things became too much for her. A strain. She must have had some suspicions over the years. How could one not?" Mrs. Dopso sipped again and smiled beatifically. "We did not volunteer to tell her, because while we knew something was odd, we couldn't be sure… Other than the birds."
"Now that you're living there," Robert said, "what do you think?"
Michael stared into his glass and twirled the stem reflectively. "It seems pretty quiet now," he said.
"Do you play the piano?" Mrs. Dopso asked.
He shook his head.
"Somebody does," she said dramatically. "We've heard it after you've driven away. And the music is not quite so lovely now. It's angry, I would say. Robert?"
"Heavy-handed, skilled but… pounding," Robert said. "I'm not sure I'd call it angry. Powerful perhaps."
Despite himself, Michael shivered, and his arm-hairs stood on end. "I haven't heard music," he said, putting the glass down.
"It's so familiar to us," Mrs. Dopso said, "over all these years. We wondered if Mr. Waltiri - Arno - or perhaps even Golda - had a relative who stayed with them."
"An old hunchbacked cousin," Robert suggested with a hint of a grin.
"No," Michael said, smiling broadly. "I'm the only one living there." That much he could be sure of.
"Bring out the tape recorder, Robert," Mrs. Dopso instructed. Robert left the dining room and returned with an old Ampex reel-to-reel deck, the tape already looped and ready to play. He set it on an unused dining chair near the wall outlet and plugged it in. Then he turned it on and stood back.