Read on for a sample chapter of "The Luthier." Visit https://www.softleybooks.com/the-luthier for more information and to find a copy in print or on your e-reader.
“Again, boy,” the old man barked, glaring over the rims of his thick, gold-framed bifocals. The boy who stood in front of the black tin music stand exhaled in frustration, pouting as his heart began to beat more rapidly and his face changed in colour to a deep, furious red.
The boy was slim with the energy and vibrancy that young boys have. He had a warm summer glow to his skin that was rich but not deep, the result of spending a good deal of time outdoors while adhering to a routine of strict, conscientious and liberal applications of sunscreen. Despite this, a spattering of freckles dotted his nose and cheeks. He had expressive hazel eyes that flashed with his moods like sparkling waves on dark water.
The music written across the pages in front of him told of a slow and moving piece that, when played with feeling, painted a picture of the tranquility of a humid summer’s night, just after sunset when the air is still and the countryside is awash with oranges, purples and roses and all other colour is dimmed to warm, dark and muted shades. Within the music, one could almost hear the growing symphony of frogs croaking in the twilit pools and the peaceful lapping of waters, resting calmly in the still air, against the stones of the lakeshore.
All this would emerge from the boy’s instrument, like soft, invisible, untouchable strands of thread that would flow into the air and weave themselves into a rich tapestry of emotion, imagery and beauty, if only the musician would pour his own soul into its creation and breathe it to life.
Only, the boy would not play with the proper feeling. He was more than capable; he had played the same piece before with exactly the power; the mysterious, unknowable element, that could make the music live. The boy had moved the old man to tears with the beauty of it. Yet this time, he bottled his soul tightly and refused to let it flow out through is fingertips.
He knew, as did the old man, that he was able to play the piece as beautifully as anyone. He knew also that if he did, he would lose himself in the melody and that it would calm him and cool his building frustration like the wash of the gentle lake water on the shores of warm evening. And yet he would not. He refused. Instead he played stiffly. He made no errors, but he purposefully tightened his grip on the bow, holding back; refusing to let it flow. He wanted to be angry and he would not be calmed. He was stubborn and refused to give the old man what he wanted.
The old man was, for all the boy knew, as old as time; as old as music itself. He had a full head of white hair and thick white eyebrows. His blue eyes, slightly clouded with age; the whites yellowed like old brittle parchment, remained passionate and piercing; focused intently on his grandson. His loose hanging skin, just beginning to brown with age spots, rippled with intensity as he spoke. He wore a close beard of white stubble. He was only just beginning to stoop and shuffle, his movement starting to stiffen as his joints aged. His voice was rough and gravelled, marked by an expressive European accent, watered down and diluted by decades of life in North America. Few had the ear to tell that his speech was Austrian; to most, he sounded German. His teeth, slightly browned by his one vice, pipe smoking, were straight and strong, only a few having been replaced.
The boy started again, moving his bow aggressively, sneaking a glance at the old man to see his satisfyingly frustrated reaction.
“No no no!” the old man fumed, whipping off his glasses and pressing his old calloused fingers into his eyes. “Why? Why will you do this to me?” he asked. “Why will you hurt my ears with this… this nonsense?” The boy just stood, silently glaring at the pages before him, the edges of his mouth curved imperceptibly upward in a bitter self-satisfied smile.
The old man took a deep drag from his smoke-browned pipe. The embers inside the bowl of the pipe burned a brighter, hotter red as he drew air, mirroring the hearts of both the boy and the old man. “Ai!” he exhaled, shaking his head “Alright. You are angry?” He stood and shuffled to a table filled with stacks of manuscript paper, spattered and speckled with black notes. He slammed a thin book with age worn, cracked pages upon the music stand. This page was the colour of oak leaves in autumn; as old and weather worn as the old man.
The piece was a furious storm of sixteenth note runs, flying angrily up and down the fingerboard in a vehement and intense minor key. It was quick and aggressive, requiring a heavy, strong attack from the bow and accurate, fast moving fingers. The old man could not have picked a song to better match the boy’s mood, which served only to frustrate the boy further. It would be difficult for him to hold back. The violin was an extension of himself; an extension of his emotions. He felt this piece and so it would seep out of him and, without careful concentration to contain himself, the boy would play with passion and feeling exactly as the old man wanted. It was a game of chess and the old man had declared check. He took another drag on his pipe.
“There! Play! Play!” As he barked the last word, a thick puff of sweet smelling tobacco smoke issued from his mouth and swirled around the page as though churned into a tempest by the raging notes.
“But Grandpa!” The boy whined, reddening further.
“We have practiced less than one hour. Only one hour. Do you know, when I was studying I used to practice six hours a day except on Sundays, and I made up for it on Monday. You practice on the days you eat, my boy!” The boy sneered silently along with his grandfather’s speech, one he had heard countless times before. “Now, I have asked only for two hours of your time and one day you may thank me, should I live long enough to see the day! My boy, one day you will be the death of me. Now play. Play it as it is meant to be played. You are angry with me? Well use it! Let it out into the music. Play!”
The boy placed the violin back on his shoulder, nearly shaking with frustration. There was a thick lump in his throat that made it difficult to swallow. The edges of his vision were blurred with a livid haze, while the corners of his eyes became watery with hot, angry tears that he blinked rapidly away. His breathing was heavy and his heart raced. As he dug into the first few bars of music, he tried to hold back, wanting to deny the old man the satisfaction of hearing what he wanted to hear. He did not want to play the song properly, and yet it would be so difficult to continue his resistance.
After just one line, the boy could hold back the flood no longer. His concentration wavered and crumbled under the pressure. His face burned and boiling tears streaked down his cheeks, but not for the old man any longer. Indeed, he had forgotten that the old man was listening. He had forgotten that he was being forced to play. He had become lost in the music and was simply feeling; releasing himself and his pent up anger and aggravation into his instrument and letting it flow out as music.
He played the melody nearly perfectly with as much emotion as anyone had ever put into a piece of music. His bow flew across the strings aggressively as though it were an extension of his hand. A few strands of horsehair broke as he played and hung limply from the tip of the bow, dancing as marionettes as the bow blurred up and down, back and forth and across the strings. His fingers ran along the black ebony fingerboard, up into higher positions and back down the neck again without conscious thought. He played as though it was breathing, and to him it was as natural. The instrument was his flesh, a projection of his heart rather than his mind.
The boy had shut himself to the outside world. His eyes had closed without conscious thought and his surroundings faded. He knew the tune from memory. It was written in his mind. It flowed through his veins and infused the air that he breathed. Vision had become a superfluous and unnecessary sense; the boy required only sound and touch in order to exist. All that was left was the music swirling around him in a rapid whirlwind. His eyes, though closed, envisioned flashes of colour as he played, like a kaleidoscope that harmonized in time with the music. Time passed. It might have been minutes, hours or days. He was now separate from the mortal world, feeling almost godlike as he poured himself into the creation of a universe built of sound; a world in which he lived for what felt like both an instant and an eternity.
The music reached its end. The boy came at last and at once to the final three chords, each played by dragging the bow forcefully across all four strings. After the last chord, he allowed his bow to lift into the air and hang as the strings rang out. He held his bow and fingers in place until the ringing notes vanished from the limits of human hearing, and then held for several moments longer as the very memory of the spell he had woven around himself faded. As he left the music and slowly returned to himself once again, his grandfather chuckled, startling the boy. He had forgotten his surroundings. Checkmate, said the grandfather’s smile, but it was a kind smile rather than a gloating one.
“There now,” he said, patting the boy’s back gently. “You see? Yes? Does that not feel better? Do you not feel that you created beauty? And were you not proud of your creation?” The boy remained silent, unable to deny the relief that came from the song and the pride that came with knowing that he had created magic, and yet he remained unwilling to cooperate with the old man. The man’s blue eyes twinkled knowingly at the boy as he peered at him with a slight wry smile. “You know you are a natural? So gifted... So gifted…” he tisked, “If you would only practice... You are stubborn; like your mother.” The boy remained silent, still clinging to his anger, if only out of stubbornness as his grandfather guessed.
“Alright,” the old man sighed, shaking his head, at a loss. “Go, then. But we are finishing the rest of your practice later.” He fixed the boy with a withering stare. “Ja?” he demanded. Begrudgingly, the boy nodded. “Good.”
The boy put his violin down on the aged coffee table and stomped off down the worn, creaking, hardwood hallway.
Quinn Hunter watched carefully as the couple stood in a corner of the newly remodelled kitchen, quietly discussing with each other. He studied their body language and their faces. He observed their hand gestures and darting glances around the room. He scrutinized the low, murmuring tones of their speech, picking up words here and there, but more often hypothesizing about what was being said based on the variation of notes that each word produced.
He guessed from the way the woman’s murmuring voice rose in pitch with each sentence that she was becoming increasingly more excited as they continued their deliberations. He could tell from the way the man rubbed his mouth and raised his eyebrows, eyes sparkling a little, that the man was hiding a grin that he couldn’t quite keep under control. He knew from the way their eyes soaked in the details of the kitchen; the top-of-the-line stainless steel appliances, the granite countertops, the slate tiled floors and mahogany cabinets, the dark, elegant hard wood of the dining room, the stylish track lighting; that they were imagining themselves living there already. As they looked around, their eyes seemed to see through the walls, recalling the other rooms they had toured. The man lifted his face toward the ceiling as though trying to peer through it to the beautiful master bedroom above with the Jacuzzi en-suite, walk-in closet, stone fireplace and large balcony looking out over the courtyard.
The woman was in her early thirties, perhaps. She was tanned, toned and wore a pair of jeans that hugged her hips lovingly. She had blonde hair that hung past her shoulder in loose golden ringlets, bright blue eyes and sultry red lips that would have been the envy of a classic pinup model. She wore brown suede cowboy boots that came nearly to her knees, the sort that had recently become fashionable even in London, where the only cowboys were the American tourists that everyone loved to hate.
This American, unlike most, Quinn thought wryly, would have been quite welcome in most of the places he frequented. Many of his friends would have happily offered to play the role of tour guide for her, showing her to the best clubs and bars while trying desperately to charm her with dry wit and gentlemanly class – at least on the surface. They would transform themselves into swaggering Hugh Grant-esque characters in the hope that their accents, well-tailored suits and half-invented trivia about castles and lords and princesses and battles might win a pretty American girl’s heart for a night or two. Quinn knew this because he himself had used these tactics to varying degrees of success in his school and university years.
Had Quinn not been happily married, and had the woman’s very large and likely gun-owning husband not been present, Quinn might have offered his own services as an expert guide.
Quinn realized belatedly that he had been analyzing the woman’s appearance for slightly longer than was polite, his eyes lingering for just a fraction of a second longer on the low black top she wore that revealed just enough to make it hard not to look.
The woman’s husband was older; likely in his late forties or early fifties and wore a goatee that was mostly grey. He, too, had squeezed himself into an over-tight pair of jeans. These jeans, like the pair worn by his wife, accentuated his figure, although not to the same appealing effect. The tight denim made his thin bowlegs look preposterously mismatched with the round girth of his upper body. To add to his disproportionate appearance, his buttoned cotton shirt was patterned with thin stripes that seemed designed specially to draw attention to the man’s prominent stomach as they curved around him like lines of longitude. As the shirt wrapped around the contours of his body, the stripes created a dizzying variety of optical illusions that Quinn felt might actually be dangerous to people who suffered from visually induced seizures. The man, like his wife, wore cowboy boots, but these were shabby and scuffed and made of a teal-dyed ostrich hide that had not been in style anywhere or at any time as far as Quinn was aware. He had a bloodshot and blotchy complexion and his eyes were so beady that it was hard to make out their colour.
It would take very little, Quinn decided, studying the miss-matched couple, to make this a sale. Even in these tough times, there was always someone with money to spare. If he could close this deal now, he felt certain that he could get the asking price, which would make it his biggest sale this year.
The owner of the place, a hot-shot bachelor stock broker in his mid-thirties, had both made and promptly lost an exorbitant amount of money recently and was ‘downsizing’ as he called it, to a one room flat.
Despite seeming rather desperate for a quick sale, the stockbroker had flatly refused to lower his asking price to a more reasonable sum, and Quinn had been left trying to move a flat that, while beautiful and well located, was outrageously over priced for the current market. Quinn would have thought that a stockbroker would have understood the concept of supply and demand, but then perhaps that was why he hadn’t held on to his - or more accurately - other peoples’ money for very long.
Nonetheless, Quinn had never once failed to get the asking price or higher in his career and, despite the misgivings that had been building over the previous few weeks, it appeared he was not about to fail now. Luck, a good sense for reading people, innate intelligence and skillful salesmanship had rocketed Quinn up the company ladder to become the best performing estate agent at one of London’s top agencies, providing estate services for people in the wealthiest and most sought-after neighbourhoods of London.
He had entered the business during an economic downturn, which, Quinn maintained, was the best time to begin a career in estate, if one had the necessary skill and work ethic. Other agents had been dropping out of the game, unable to make sales, unable to cope. He had come in, fresh, bright and quick; one of a very few to sign on to a sinking ship. He had stood out right from his first day as a result of the fortunate timing and had continued to stand out under the watchful eyes of the agency’s partners.
There were opportunities, Quinn knew, to be had in any market. Interest rates throughout much of the world had hit historic lows and the Pound Sterling had substantially reduced buying power. Bad for the economy overall, if you believed the business news reports, but perfect conditions for attracting foreign investment. He’d sought out and courted his clients carefully, filling his slate with people who could be shaped and moulded; people that would be cooperative. He preferred a client who, though selling a less valuable property, would take his advice to one with the promise of a more lucrative commission but an inability to listen.
With his schedule full, Quinn had taken on fewer of the random clients doled out by his firm and had been able to focus his energies where he knew they would be successful. He had, apparently, made an error when he had taken on the obstinate and unyielding stockbroker as a client.
In addition to his growing sales commissions, Quinn had also made a small fortune by buying properties for himself on the cheap, slapping on quick fixes and coats of paint and selling them a month or two later at high prices. After coming of age, he had received the moderate inheritance his parents had left him, and had turned it into a sizeable sum. Lately he had been holding properties longer, waiting for better prices in the housing market.
As the prospective buyers continued their discussion, Quinn moved into the next room, an adjoining living room separated by a half wall, and pulled the latest model iPhone out from the inner breast pocket of his Armani suit. He selected the first ‘favourite’ on his contact list, which was always assigned to his latest client, and waited as his phone began to ring.
“Yes?” answered the stockbroker, impatient and terse as usual.
“Aaron?” replied Quinn quietly, “Quinn here. Listen, things are looking good at this viewing, but I need you to give me something I can offer them so they don’t hesitate for too long. We need them to feel they’re getting a good deal. Bait the hook, you know.”
“What did you have in mind, Hunter?”
“Why not throw in the blinds, curtains and all the appliances. Washer and dryer too. You don’t lose much and they don’t gain much, but they won’t calculate that if you get them while they’re fresh here. We want them to make a quick decision. If they look around they will likely find something comparable for less.”
“I suppose,” said Aaron, sounding put out, “but only if they agree to the asking price. And only if it’s a quick sale.” The line went dead, a triple beep indicating the lost connection as Aaron promptly hung up without waiting for a reply. Quinn rolled his eyes.
“Bloody prat...” he muttered at his phone. He plastered a smile back onto his face and went back into the kitchen and dining room area, moving in for the kill.
“I think I have good news for you,” he said, holding his hands out in a pose that a magician might use if he had caused something large and flashy to appear out of thin air.
“Yeah?” replied the man in a drawling Texas accent. “We were thinkin’ this place is pretty pricey...” Quinn could tell that the man was attempting to play what the Americans called hard ball, but felt cautiously optimistic. He had seen the desirous look in the man’s – and more importantly the woman’s – eye. He merely wanted a concession or two.
“Ah, yes,” Quinn replied regretfully, fixing them with a sympathetic look. “You are correct, I’m afraid. I won’t lie; you can find similar square footage elsewhere for much less. However, what you must keep in mind is the availability of this building. You see, only one of these units has come up for sale in the past two years, and it was the one in which we stand, purchased by my client. These units are highly sought after. The design of the building: modern, stylish, yet old-world and Georgian. As well, its amenities are unique: maid service, twenty-four hour security, doorman and maintenance, a car service, a gym with a personal trainer, even catering at a discounted price. The large courtyard offers an insulated and peaceful recreational area not often found in central London. Coming from Texas, where vast amounts of land are available for reasonable prices, you might find it hard to adjust to a building without a private garden like this one; but you are quite right, it does come at a premium.”
“Weeell... You might be right about that. Not a lot of space to go ‘round in this town, huh?”
“Not a lot indeed,” Quinn replied. The Texan was thoughtful for a moment. “Now what about them appliances? We were talkin’ ‘bout them... Seems like for the price of this place, they should be included...”
“Ah yes, I’m glad you brought that up. That was the good news I mentioned. Listen, I’ll make you an offer, but my client is only able to hold it open for the next forty-eight hours: offer the asking price and he’ll throw in all the appliances. Brand new.”
“All of ‘em? Washer and dryer too?”
“Washer and dryer too,” Quinn nodded. He his smile grew a little wider knowing that he had once again read the situation perfectly. “He has even agreed to include all of the window treatments.” The woman’s eyes lit up and she could not keep the corners of her mouth from curving slightly.
"Silk,” she mouthed silently behind a slender hand to her husband, her fingers glittering with jewels as they rose to conceal her face.
“Hahrumm...” the Texan grumbled, looking into the woman’s eyes. She looked back and they stared at each other for a moment as though trying to communicate telepathically. The woman gave a slight nod and another hint of a smile while the man turned back to Quinn, pursing his lips.
“Weeeeell...” he began, “It looks like you got yerselves a deal. We’ll have the paperwork done up tomorrah.”
“That’s brilliant Mr. Horn. Congratulations. I know that both of you will love it here.” Quinn stepped forward and grasped the big Texan’s hand. The man had a firm, manly grip, but Quinn matched his rough handshake impressively. Freeing himself from Horn’s grasp, he leaned forward to peck Mrs. Horn on the cheek, which was soft and smooth and smelled of berries. She held him there for a few moments longer than was customary and flashed him a quick wink as he was at last released. Quinn could feel a slight tingle in his face, but took it in a stride, calming the blush with patent willpower and determination.
“We will sort out the details when you drop off your offer. Just so you are aware, my client is willing – eager, in fact – to honour a quick possession date. Now, there is also the matter of a deposit, in order to place the home on conditional sale and prevent others from bidding.”
“How would a fifty thousand dollar... er... pound cheque be?” replied the Texan
“That would be more than adequate. Just bring it with your paperwork tomorrow and that will provide you a maximum of thirty days to ensure that your finances and legal work are in order to complete the sale. Again, we can go over all the legalities and details when you complete your paperwork tomorrow.”
“Heh!” the Texan guffawed, “thirty days! My finances are in order, son! I could buy this place from y’all in cash right now!” With that, he hastily wrote a cheque and tore it roughly from his chequebook, handing it to Quinn. The cheque was made out to an unspecified payee in the amount of fifty thousand pounds. Quinn nearly allowed surprise to play across his face, but the moment passed.
“I don’t doubt it,” Quinn replied, grinning inwardly at the thought of the impulsive man slapping down fifty thousand quid on the first viewing. The cheque could easily be deposited by anyone at all. He marvelled at a man who cared so little for fifty thousand that he was willing to place it into a stranger’s hand without contract, guarantee or even information about to whom the money was going. “It’s the legal matters that take more time.”
“Hell, the amount I’m payin’ my lawyer, he better git it done faster than that,” the Texan replied. “Anyway, we gotta run. Pleasure doin’ business with you Mr. Hunter.” Quinn thought it would be fitting for the man to light up a fat cigar, pull out a Colt six-shooter and blow a couple celebratory holes in the moulded ceiling, but he gratefully refrained.
Quinn ushered the couple out with several more rounds of rough handshakes, heavy-handed slaps on the back, and prolonged cheek pecks. He locked the door and made his way down to the foyer.
“Your car is ready, Mr. ‘unter,” said the young doorman. Quinn hoped the boy, who seemed only old enough to have had a drivers licence for a short while, was not the one who had driven his car in and out of the underground car park.
“Ta, lad,” he said, though he himself could not have been more than ten years older. Taking the keys from the doorman’s hand while smoothly sliding a rolled five pound note into the same hand, he walked down the stone steps to the street and slid into the door of his sleek black Audi, sinking into the low leather bucket seats. He had bought the car on the recommendation of his mentor and superior, one of the partners of his agency.
“You want to have the appearance of success, Hunter,” Donald Bane had told him. “If you are able to transport clients in luxury and style, they will presume that you are a highly successful man – not, of course, that you aren't – you will simply make more sales if they perceive that you are doing quite well for yourself.”
The doorman closed the door for him once he was settled and he gave a small wave in thanks. Starting the car, he quickly sped into the narrow, congested streets of central London, on his way home for the evening, victorious once more.