Written for the TICWF "Crush a brother" challenge, with thanks to all concerned for inspiring the idea.
For the music-lovers amongst you, a little piece in ternary form (without repeats). In fact, those folks at TIC don't know what they've done, as now I'm thinking of writing a series based on musical forms. Rondo to follow!
Although I'd like to have and hold 'em
Don't. I hope that's gone and told 'em.
Etude in the key of A minor.
"Bham, bham, bh-bham, bham, bham, bham, bham," Virgil muttered, as once again he hammered out the left hand rhythm on the long-suffering grand piano. Not quite the right balance – just a little more bass needed at the bottom of the chords.
Bass. He sighed. That was the issue. The fiendishly difficult right hand sixteenth note passages had come flooding back to him, a legacy of hours and hours of studious practice all those years ago. But the equivalent left hand passages seemed so much more difficult than they used to.
How long since he'd played this piece? Ten years? Yes, it must be nearly ten years.
And yet he could still execute many of the tricky finger sequences, learned so indelibly that they'd become part of the fabric of his very being, etching their patterns into the pathways of his motor cortex. Just the left hand balance not quite right, not quite as he remembered it, even after a couple of hours of trying over and over for the elusive perfection.
Sighing, Virgil rose, feeling sorely in need of a cigarette. He headed out onto the balcony.
He found that he was not alone.
Quite when and how Scott had slipped past him in the lounge, Virgil was uncertain. He had, it was true, been more than unusually absorbed in his playing, and the piece was – also true – pretty well fortissimo much of the time. Still, Virgil reflected fancifully, his brother sometimes seemed to have a paranormal ability to transport himself unseen and unheard around the villa.
Virgil reached for his cigarettes, flipped open and tapped the pack. One detached itself obediently from the others, his old party trick. Out of habit he offered it to Scott, who declined, as he did on all but the rarest of occasions. Virgil extracted it, flicked open his lighter, and shielding the flame against the light onshore breeze, lit up.
"That's quite a sunset," he remarked. He blew out a steady stream of smoke.
"Sure is," Scott said contentedly. He swung around and tilted his head a little, a querying expression on his face. "Wasn't that….?"
"Yes, Virgil interrupted quickly.
Scott gave a brief nod. "I haven't heard you play it in a long time." His tone was a little wary.
Virgil shrugged. "I was clearing out a closet today and came across my old music case. I don't think I've opened it since…well, you remember."
"I remember," Scott said softly. He turned back to face the sea, leaning on the guard rail.
The brothers were content to stand side-by-side in silence for a while, gazing at the last vestiges of vanishing sun.
But after a few moments Scott stirred again, without looking at his sibling. He rubbed the bridge of his nose uneasily, a clear signal of discomfort to a brother who knew his every nuance of expression intimately. Finally, he asked the question that was on his mind. "You ever have any regrets?"
Virgil's eyes misted a little.
Yes, it had been ten years ago. He'd been seventeen.
A cold January in New York, and the first interstate trip he'd made by himself…
…Virgil was exhilarated and apprehensive at the same time. There was something real strange about staying on his lonesome in the hotel. But then, there was something weird about being on his own, period. Usually a guy couldn't move for brothers. It felt like a taste of things to come. Less than a year, and he'd be moving out of the Kansas farmhouse that he called home, and away from the adults who still supervised what felt like his every move, despite the fact that he was grown up, near as mattered, and that Scott had left home at pretty much exactly the age Virgil was now.
He sat at the table in the hotel restaurant that evening, feeling both important, and yet strangely disappointed by the experience of dining alone. The waiters were discreet and formal. Virgil found himself trying to converse with them, just to break the awkwardness. They responded politely but without real interest.
The other diners were older than he was, mostly couples and business types, deep in conversation. He found himself the subject of a few curious glances. He wondered what they made of him, this solitary young man in this very expensive hotel. He wondered, too, what they would say if they knew his family owned it, and many more like it.
In the corner of the room, the elderly hotel pianist played light classics in a desultory fashion, the damping pedal held down the whole while for fear of interrupting the dinner conversations around him. Virgil watched with a trace of contempt as the man turned a page. Why did he need sheet music for something so simple? Couldn't the guy improvise even a little? Virgil had been jamming with his own jazz quintet since eighth grade.
He pictured the others in his mind's eye now. Kate on trumpet, all virtuosic brilliance. J.J. on drums, the rhythmic power house that drove them and kept them all together. Himself on piano, of course, sometimes simply filling out the harmonies, but just as often engaging in soloistic flights of fancy. José on bass, lending depth and sonority, and finally Ace on clarinet and sax, one moment melancholic, the next all soaring glissandi. Playing with those guys was like curling up with a good book; you kinda knew what was coming, but every now and then someone would throw something unexpected into the mix, just to keep everyone on their toes. Virgil was really going to miss them.
Zoning back to the here-and-now, he wondered impulsively how the stuffy waiters would react if he was to elbow aside the resident musician and take over duties on the keyboard. He forced down a chuckle at the thought.
In the end, he'd eaten as hastily as decency permitted, then fled back up to his suite, turning on the television for company.
Jeff called on the vid-phone an hour later. Virgil read concern on his father's face.
"Hi, son, how are you doing?"
"You all set for tomorrow?"
"Sure, sure." Virgil tried to feign nonchalance, but it didn't quite come off.
Jeff raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"As ready as I can be, I think, sir," Virgil amended. "I'm pretty nervous, I guess."
"I'm so sorry I can't be there with you, son. I know how important this is."
"And I know how important closing this deal is to you, Dad." Virgil responded. "It's okay. I'm fine. Besides, it wouldn't exactly help if you held my hand."
Jeff chuckled. "It would certainly make for an interesting recital."
"It's an audition, Dad, not a recital," Virgil reminded him.
"I know, son. Now, the car will pick you up at eight-thirty sharp. Don't oversleep," Jeff added sternly. He knew only too well his second son's propensity for lazing in bed.
Virgil rolled his eyes. "I've already ordered a wake-up call. Stop worrying."
"It's just that I know how much this means to you, Virgil."
"I'll be fine."
Jeff nodded slowly. "I know you will. I've never heard anyone your age play the way you do. You sound like a professional already. Go and show them all how it's supposed to be done. Call me as soon as you're done – I want to hear all about it."
"Good luck, son. Not that you need it."
Virgil rang off, feeling at once pleased that his father was taking such an interest, and yet uneasy at the casual confidence Jeff showed in him. The older Tracy was a music-lover, sure, but a dilettante, his ear not really well-tuned enough to tell the difference between good and great.
And to get into the Juilliard, you had to be great.
The chances of getting in were slim. They took fewer than ten per cent of applicants. He'd be competing against talented musicians from all over the world. To turn the thumbscrews a little tighter still, Mom had gone there.
Virgil took a deep breath, trying to unlock the stomach muscles that tightened in anticipation of tomorrow's ordeal. Suddenly, he regretted bolting dinner.
He jumped nervously as his cell rang.
Glancing at the caller number, his mouth relaxed into a smile. Scott, calling from England. Just like him – it must be, what, four in the morning there?
"Hi, kid. How's New York?"
"Ditch the 'kid', will you? Cold. How's Oxford?"
"Wet. You staying in the penthouse?"
"Yup. Living it up. A luxury suite and a five-course dinner. I could do this more often."
"Very nice. What are you playing tomorrow?"
Virgil stretched his hands, studied his fingers. They'd grown some in the last year, extending his already enormous stretch to an octave and a fifth. Ideal for playing the romantics, his favorite classical composers.
"Some Bach, Beethoven's Appassionata and then Chopin opus twenty-five-eleven."
"Er, remind me?"
"The big A minor study."
"Oh, that thing!" Scott sounded suitably impressed. "That ought to get their attention. Can you play all those twiddly left hand bits now, then?"
"Is twiddly a technical term? Yes, I can play them, okay?" Virgil realized his tone was a little tetchy.
He heard Scott chuckle. "Just kidding. You're going to knock 'em dead. I'd better let you get some sleep. Just called to say the very best of British, mate."
Virgil snorted. "Is that supposed to be an English accent? It sounds Australian."
"Really?" Scott sounded crestfallen. "I still get them mixed up."
"You live there, Scott."
"They still sound exactly the same to me. Good luck, ki…good luck, Virgil. Speak soon."
Virgil rang off, smiling, but his underlying unease remained. Everyone's expectations seemed so high.
Almost as soon as he put down his cell, the vid-phone rang again. Kansas.
"Are you all right, dear? I tried you before but there was no reply."
"I'm fine, Grandma. The plane was a little late touching down, that's all. Dad and Scott have both called."
"Have you eaten? You look pale."
"I had a huge supper. I guess I'm just a little tired now, that's all," he said.
"Well, I won't keep you, dear. I just wanted you to know we're all thinking about you. The boys are ready for bed but I told them they could stay up late just this once to wish you good luck."
Virgil could hear a cacophony of sounds in the background, which he took to mean his younger brothers were sending their best wishes. They didn't sound all that complimentary. It was followed by an array of hands and tongues and face-pulling and some scolding and shooing upstairs on the part of his grandmother.
"John sends his love," she interpreted, "and Gordon and Alan just know you're going to be offered a place. And I'm sure they're right, darling. Mr. Mitchell speaks so very highly of you."
"Yes, Grandma," Virgil said hastily. "Well, I'd better do a last check to make sure I've got everything ready, then turn in for the night. It's an hour later here, remember? I have to be up early."
"Yes, of course dear. Well, good luck, and God bless. I'll be thinking of you tomorrow."
Virgil rang off gratefully. He sat on the edge of the bed for a few moments, musing, before kicking off his shoes. Everything felt a little unreal. At this stage, he simply wanted to get tomorrow over with.
At length, he reached into his music case, flicked through the contents. The audition pieces were all at the very limits of his technical ability. The Beethoven would be okay; he'd played it at the end-of-semester concert just a few weeks ago and it had gone surprisingly well. The Bach Prelude and Fugue was tricky in places but he'd had it in his repertoire for a long time now.
He opened up the Chopin etude and practiced it virtually on the bedspread for a few minutes. He was less confident about his choice here, and wished he'd had the opportunity to play it to a wider audience than his family and a few friends. After the first deceptive horn-like passage it was fireworks all the way, one of the most challenging pieces he'd ever tackled. So fast. But it had to be technically demanding if he was to stand out from the crowd tomorrow.
At length, he stripped down to his shorts and turned in.
For one of the very first times in his young life, Virgil could not get to sleep. At first he thought it was because he was still on Kansas time. But his normal bed-time came and went.
He tossed and turned, anticipating tomorrow's performance, playing the pieces over and over in his mind. The expectations of his family lay heavy on his soul, and, truth be told, dinner lay a little heavily on his stomach. The noises of the city seemed preternaturally loud. He fumed a little at first, wondering why this had to happen tonight, of all nights. Then he became increasingly fretful, worried that if he didn't get sufficient sleep he wouldn't be able to perform well the next day.
It occurred to him that both his father and older brother always reported that they managed on a minimum of sleep. How did they do it? And what did they do all night? Surely they didn't lie awake staring at the ceiling through the dim light, and bunching the sheets into uncomfortable little knots.
After another sleepless hour or so, he sighed, sat up, and switched on the lights.
Indigestion had turned to nausea.
It wasn't unusual. In fact, he'd been expecting it. There are musicians who can give the performance of their lives without a trace of nerves. There are those who are so crippled by nerves they never give of their best in public. Then there are those who suffer dreadfully until the moment they put their hands to the keyboard, or raise bow to string, or draw breath to sing. But in the moment the first sound is emitted, every trace of nerves vanishes and the performance is all that counts. Virgil was in that latter category.
Before every solo public performance he could remember, he'd thrown up. He was legendary for it.
His jazz group was a different matter, of course. The solidarity of having other musicians playing alongside him usually offered the reassurance he needed. But when he had to play on his own he was always convinced that he was going to mess up. That he never did seemed to make not a jot of difference. Kate teased him about it regularly.
Virgil went to the bathroom, retched miserably. So much for dinner.
On returning to bed, he switched on the television again, quietly enough not to disturb the residents on the floor below, but loud enough to provide a distraction. Eventually, somewhere around five in the morning, he had fallen to sleep, round-the-clock game shows playing in the background.
Virgil woke with a jolt as the phone rang shrilly. He blinked and glanced at the clock. Surely it couldn't be time to get up already? It felt like the middle of the night. He needed more sleep.
He reached for the phone, punched the button for the front desk, sound only.
"Can you give me another ring in half an hour, please?"
"Yes, sir. Anything else?"
"No thanks." Virgil was asleep again almost before he switched off the phone.
When the next call came, Virgil felt a little better. But it was a rush now, to shower, shave, and dress smartly, and get down to the lobby in time for eight-thirty. No time for breakfast, even if he could have stomached it.
He grabbed his music case, made his way down to the front desk.
"Is my car…?"
The concierge indicated with a flip of the head. Virgil glanced in the direction indicated. A small uniformed man, newspaper in hand, detached himself from the wall he'd been propping up. "Mister Tracy?"
"Er, yes, I guess."
"I'm Mort, Mister Tracy, sir. I'll be your driver today." The heavy accent betrayed a native New Yorker.
Virgil followed obediently to where the car was parked just outside the foyer. Mort held open the door. The youngster eased himself inside.
They pulled away smoothly into the morning traffic. Virgil pulled out his letter of invitation, checked the details, rifled through his music, knowing it was all in order, really.
The chauffeur glanced at him in the mirror. "The Juilliard, right?"
"That's right," Virgil said. He was not in a mood for talking, but Mort clearly had other ideas.
"Ain't that the music school?"
"Performing arts, yes."
"You study there?"
"I'd like to. I have an audition this morning."
"Oh, is that right? An audition, you say? A musician? Me myself, now, I love music. What do you play?"
"I'm a pianist."
"Oh yeah? The pi-a-no? My uncle Arnie, now, he used to tickle the ivories, a fine player, yes, sir."
Virgil was treated to a long monolog about Mort's uncles, and about his cousins, and about the general state of the world. He tried to be polite, but he was longing for the journey to end because he was feeling anxious, and queasy, and he wasn't the least bit interested in Mort's cousins.
To make matters worse, there seemed to be delays everywhere they went. It wasn't really all that far, but ongoing building work in the city led to closed roads, which led to detours, which led to traffic jams and blaring horns. Virgil glanced at his watch. He was supposed to report in at nine, so that he could warm up ready for the nine-thirty audition. But it was already gone the hour.
He hadn't really wanted the car in the first place. He'd have been happy to take the subway or a cab. After all, what would it look like, turning up to an audition in a fancy limo? But Dad had insisted, and Virgil had reluctantly agreed. Better that than Grandma chaperoning him.
Mort liked it hot in the car. Real hot. Virgil stripped off the gloves and scarf he'd donned against the bitter winter weather, and stuffed them into his music case. He unbuttoned his greatcoat, but it didn't help much. By the time they'd made their way along West Sixty-Fifth to the Lincoln Center, he was sweating and a little shaky. He was pretty sure that once he got in there he was going to be sick again, even though his stomach felt empty. But he was relieved finally to have arrived.
As they drew to a stop, he reached for the door release.
"Just one minute, Mister Tracy," Mort told him brightly.
Of course. Etiquette. He waited as the chauffeur hopped out and held open the door for him.
Outside, there was a thin layer of icy snow on the sidewalk. The cold wind hit Virgil like a brick, sucking the warm air right out of his lungs. He pulled himself unsteadily out of the car.
Beside him, Mort started to turn away, one eye firmly on the heavy traffic passing them by. Virgil took a step away from the car, but in that moment was hit by the oddest sensation; intense vertigo, a whining sensation in his head. For a split-second he simply had no idea which way up he was. He closed his eyes, hoping that it would clear the dizziness. It did not. If anything it made it worse. There was a rushing in his ears. He felt as though he might fall, or pass out.
Virgil clutched his case tightly with his right hand, stumbled back against the car for support with the other.
Just as Mort slammed shut the door with the vigor and enthusiasm of a man performing his sworn duty to the very best of his ability."Aieeee!"
Virgil experienced a searing, almost exquisite pain as the fingers of his left hand were trapped in the door.
He doubled over, the shock jolting him back to full consciousness. He tried to call out again, struck by a sudden absurd terror that Mort might climb back into the vehicle and drag him along, unnoticed, to the parking lot. But the best he could manage was a wordless, strangulated yelp.
The chauffeur swung around, and his eyes opened wide. Virgil dropped his case, now, trying in vain to reach round to pull the door open again. He realized he was whimpering softly. Mort beat him to it, yanking at the door with an exclamation, and Virgil slumped away from the vehicle. His crushed digits immediately began to throb, and he caught his left hand under his arm, pursing his lips, and cursing softly, trying to stop the flow of tears that sprang to his eyes.
His breath was coming in gasps.
Beside him, Mort was – well - mortified. Virgil tried to stop him fussing, but gave up, unable to deal with anything but the pain. He allowed the chauffeur to manhandle him up the steps into the reception area of the school. A passer-by was kind enough to follow them in with Virgil's music-case.
A degree of chaos ensued. First aiders were sought and found. Virgil was probed and prodded, to no good effect. He dripped a little blood on the expensive carpet. His fingers were loosely bandaged, and the blood mopped up.
The pain was excruciating. Shock kicked in, and he felt sick and dizzy again, finding himself with his head between his knees in no time, a bunch of middle-aged women fussing over him. He protested, faintly, that he didn't want to be a nuisance and was assured, over and over, that he mustn't think such a thing, and everything would be fine, and it didn't matter about the audition, he could come back later, when….
…and for the first time, it sank in that he was not going to be playing the piano today. Or tomorrow. Or maybe ever again.
Virgil tried to move his fingers as much as the bandaging would allow. His thumb had escaped, and the index finger didn't feel so bad. The rest he didn't want to think about. He felt sick, but not with nerves this time.
It was abundantly obvious that his next stop would have to be the nearest hospital, and he was bundled back into the car, Mort still apologizing non-stop. A few minutes later, and Virgil found himself in a dimly lit ER, at the end of a long line of falls, fractures and chest pains.
A flurry of frantic phone-calls ensued. Jeff was pulled out of a meeting and informed of the accident. The upshot was that the billionaire businessman made preparations to leave his executives to finish his deal, in order to head straight to New York in his private jet.
Meanwhile, Mort stayed with Virgil at the hospital. As they waited, the unfortunate chauffeur became markedly less loquacious. Virgil suspected that now he realized the seriousness of the damage he'd inadvertently inflicted, there was more to occupy his mind than Uncle Bernie's bad teeth and Cousin Walt's second-hand furniture business. The chauffeur had dented the boss's precious and prodigious progeny and must surely be wondering what the consequences were going to be.
Virgil had more than a fair idea.
When they were done with all the waiting and the X-rays, and scans, and frowning doctors, Mort had taken Virgil back to the hotel instead of driving him to JFK as originally planned. Late in the afternoon, Virgil was finally able to put his head down on his pillow and, pumped full of painkillers, the adrenaline rush over, slept the sleep of the dead until Jeff's arrival a couple of hours later.
Mort had wanted to wait with him. Virgil wouldn't hear of it. Firstly, he just wanted to sleep. Secondly, Mort and Jeff would not, he thought, be a good combination. He was not wrong. Jeff's reaction on arrival at the hotel was a predictable mix of rage and anguish.
"First thing in the morning, I'll fire the idiot!"
Virgil stirred wearily. "It wasn't his fault, Dad." The thought of Mort losing his job made Virgil intensely uncomfortable, filling him with the sense that this would simply add one injury to another.
"He should have taken more care."
Virgil shook his head. "I wasn't feeling so good. I put out a hand because I thought I was going to pass out and…and it just happened, that's all. It was as much my fault as his. He didn't do it on purpose."
Jeff looked at him. "You're not well? Did you tell the doctors at the hospital?"
"To be honest I skipped breakfast, Dad. I didn't sleep too good, and I was late, and…well, you know how I get when I have to play in public."
Jeff sighed. He did know. "Just how bad is it?"
Virgil looked at his strapped-up fingers. He felt tears spring to his eyes again. The news had not been good. "I broke my ring and little finger. They think the tendon is partly severed, and there's some nerve damage. They…they don't know if I'll be able to play again."
"Oh, Virgil." Jeff's voice cracked a little. Then he gathered his son up into his arms and pulled him close. "I'm so sorry." His anger suddenly turned inwards. "If only I'd been with you, this wouldn't have happened."
The sun had dipped just below the horizon now, and the sea was blood-red, reflecting the vivid colors of the sky.
Virgil glanced at Scott.
He considered what his brother had said. Any regrets?
He thought back. It had been an odd time. When he'd arrived home the family had not known quite how to deal with him. They lowered their voices around him, even Gordon and Alan, who were not known for their sensitivity. It hadn't lasted long, of course, but there was a sense in which they had tried to share his loss without ever quite fully understanding it. Virgil was, in part, grateful.
After a few weeks he had recovered well enough to allow him to sketch and paint with both hands once more, and for that he had also been grateful. The piano playing was another matter. He'd found himself unaccountably angry at times, an amorphous sense of rage that he couldn't really express. Was it due to the accident, or had it been there all along, his music-making now no longer the safety valve for pent-up feelings? Virgil had never been sure. The worst thing was that those last precious months with his cherished jazz group were snatched away.
Jeff had thrown money at it, of course; the very best medical care. The fractures were not too problematic in themselves. It was the crushing of nerve and sinew that had taken its toll. Virgil had benefited from cutting-edge research into tissue regeneration. In time, he had healed. It was almost twelve months to the day before he put his hands to a keyboard again. The problems with the ring finger, traditionally the weakest for a pianist, were potentially surmountable. But the slight residual weakness of the little finger was enough to end hopes of a professional career.
But by then Virgil had started to re-invent himself. He had accepted a place at college and was ensconced at Denver studying mechanical engineering, with a little fine art on the side, his choice mitigated by a desire to change tack completely, avoiding anything that would remind him of what might have been. He had found other interests, and taken up other pursuits.
Virgil looked directly at Scott, and shook his head. "Honestly? No."
He shrugged in response to Scott's querying expression.
"Say for the sake of argument that I'd gotten in to the Juilliard that year. I could have made a decent living playing piano, I guess. But I doubt I'd have made a concert pianist. Maybe I'd have become an accompanist. I liked playing with other people. Or maybe I'd have just bummed around playing jazz in the clubs."
Scott grinned. "I can just see you as a lounge lizard. But seriously? You always sounded fantastic to me."
Virgil shook his head. "With most instruments you have a shot at making it into an orchestra if you don't hack it as a soloist. But to be a concert pianist – well, you have to be a great player, and you need to be so single-minded. I was good, but I wasn't the best." He hesitated. "And I'm just not sure whether… people…would ever have coped with that. Everyone seemed to have such big plans for me." He glanced down.
"Me included, huh?" Scott shook his head. "You know we'd all have been proud of you whether you made the Juilliard or not, right?"
"Sometimes it didn't feel like that. I wasn't sure that you all realized how tough the competition was – or how tough that kind of life is. But…"
"But?" Scott prompted.
Virgil lifted his head. "Well, what we do here is tough in a completely different way. And I know I'm darned good at my job. You could say I am the best. I'm the best pilot Thunderbird Two has."
Scott reached out, gripped his brother's shoulder lightly. "You sure are. That bit of precision maneuvering you did at the crash site yesterday was as good a piece of flying as I've seen."
"I wasn't fishing for compliments."
"I was stating a fact. And what we do is important, remember that."
Virgil nodded. "I do. We save lives. What could be better than that? I love this job. And I love this team. I can't even begin to imagine how I'd have felt if the rest of you were all doing this and I couldn't be involved, didn't have the right skills to be a part of it. Maybe these things happen for a reason."
"Maybe they do."
"So, no; no regrets."
Scott smiled at him. He shifted a little. The night air was cooling rapidly. "I need to fetch a sweater. You coming in?"
"In a moment."
Scott nodded, turned back toward the lounge. As he disappeared, Virgil called after him.
"I can still play all the twiddly bits."
"So I noticed."
Virgil grinned. He took out another cigarette, then looked at it for a moment before pushing it back, unlit, into the packet.
The reds began to fade now, the water taking on a darker hue.
But in the shadows above the balcony, unseen to Virgil, there was a small movement, as though the wind had suddenly caught the drapes.
Upstairs, Jefferson Tracy stepped back from the open window.
His face, into which the worry-lines were etched permanently these days, momentarily relaxed and softened, as though some old burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
Just for an instant, the Head of International Rescue looked pretty much exactly ten years younger.