Dissertation Most Deadly – Chapter 1

I couldn’t believe he was dead.

The cheerful voice on the line said, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Ummmm, yeah,” I replied.  “Could you tell me how old Dr. Brownsten was?  I mean, he just finished his dissertation in 1997 or so, didn’t he?  How did he die and when?”

“Well,” the receptionist paused.  She must have been at a loss.

“Weeellll,” she repeated, a little slower this time.

I came to her rescue.  “Is there anyone else I can talk to about this? Anyone specifically assigned to music history?”

“Oh yes,” she replied, instantly becoming cheerful again.  “That would be Caroline Berk.  I’ll transfer you.  In case we get cut off, her extension is 2134.”

Click.   Nothing.  Dial tone.

I called back.  “Extension 2134,” I said as another equally cheerful voice answered the phone.  This time it rang, and rang and rang.  What was Greenhill Publishers doing anyway?  Obviously nothing.  I decided to be stubborn.  I’m very good at it.  I put it on speakerphone and continued cleaning my desk, a futile exercise, especially with a 16 pound cat splayed all over it.  The phone droned in the background.  I didn’t care.

After about five minutes, a very annoyed voice answered.

“This is Berk.”

“Caroline Berk?”

“Yes, can I help you?”   The voice was still annoyed.

“Well, Ms. Berk, my name is Leigh Maxwell. I’m a graduate student at City University in Boston and am writing my doctoral dissertation on Enrique Dadi.  I understand Greenhill Publishers contracted Dr. Jack Brownsten to do a complete biography on Dadi and I was just trying to contact him.”

“He’s dead,” she cut in.

“Yes, yes, I know.  I was told by the secretary or receptionist in your department, but what I’d like to know is if you have any materials he was using or that he had already submitted.  I’m sort of getting stonewalled by the Dadi archives in Spain.  I was trying to connect with someone here in the States who may have manuscripts, microfilms or anything else helpful.”  I hoped I sounded a bit pathetic at that point.  “Is there anything you can do to help me out?”

“Look,” she answered.  It wasn’t a good beginning.  She paused and began again.  “Look, I took over the music history department only three months ago.  All it says in my files is …” pause, paper rustled.  At least she was looking at something.  It may have been her paperback for all I knew but at least the edginess in her voice was gone.  “Okay, all I can tell you,” she continued more authoritatively, “is that he died in 1998, manuscript unfinished. We have nothing in our files.  He does have a widow.  She might be of help.  I can’t give you her address but you can write to her care of me and I’ll forward it.  That’s the best I can do.”

“Well, thanks.” I replied. “I’ll write to her today.  Could you give me your address?”

She did.

“One more thing,” I continued.  At this point, I was definitely trying her patience.  “One more thing … wasn’t he a young man? I mean, well, how did he die?”

“Oh, yes, it says here Dr. Brownsten was born in 1963.  He was in his mid-30’s when he died, no idea how.  Is there anything else?”

“No, thanks for all your help.”

With a firm click she was gone.  I slowly replaced the phone in its cradle. I couldn’t believe it – Brownsten dead too. This was the third scholar I had tried to contact about my work on Enrique Dadi and all three were dead. Of course, I was frustrated. My dissertation was stalled because the archives wouldn’t give me access to their materials, and everyone in the States who was even vaguely working with Dadi seemed to be gone.  First the graduate student from Chicago – dead of a car accident. Then the Spanish historian from Kansas, missing, presumed dead in a skiing accident.  Now Brownsten.  Brownsten was only in his mid-30’s. I was 34. This hit very close to home. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.

I looked at my computer screen. There was the icon for the Dissertation Bibliography and an outline and abstract. That was it. I had read all the secondary information I could get my hands on already – not much, by the way. What I needed was to see all the primary source stuff – sketches, letters, notes and manuscripts.

I guess it would be helpful to explain who Enrique Dadi was. I tend to get so caught up in my work that I’m surprised when people don’t know exactly what it is I’m working on, much less what a musicologist is.  Dadi was an interesting composer, born in Spain in 1877 and died in Puerto Rico in 1949.  The turn of the century was a great time for musicians – so many exciting things happened, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel – the list goes on and on.  Dadi is especially interesting to me since he lived in France during WWI and returned to Spain after the war, while most people did just the opposite. He also traveled around the United States, living first in Florida and then Puerto Rico during the Spanish Civil War.  What has always struck me about Dadi has been the lack of stylistic coherence between pieces – I mean that when I hear Mozart, even without knowing the exact piece, I know it’s Mozart. I can’t say the same thing about Dadi. The early pieces that I’ve been studying are, quite frankly, pretty bad – I could probably write better, but they do have stylistic coherence and I can always tell authorship.  After Dadi studied in Italy and France, I can’t tell if it is his work at all. Each piece is so different from the other and each is brilliant. I also knew from the grad student that there are some of Dadi’s pieces have never been published.  He had seen some of them, and wanted to edit and then publish them.  Now, that was my goal. I needed to see them but the people who already had, turned up dead.

I kept staring at my computer screen and suddenly felt very old and tired.  Nothing like graduate school to make you feel wasted. After six years of classes, exams, more classes and more exams here I was ABD (all but dissertation) and I wasn’t getting anywhere. Eight months of reading and note taking hadn’t gotten me far. In fact, I vaguely considered switching my topic to Beethoven – a topic where at least everyone has written something. Maybe I could find a new angle. Agh. I needed encouragement.

I hit the speakerphone and called my advisor. He also happened to be a good friend.

His answering machine kicked in.

“Jack, pick up.” I said into the machine. Pause. “I know you’re there. You don’t teach today. You’re hiding.”

I was rewarded with: “What’s up? I wasn’t hiding, just reading.”

“Jack, Brownsten is dead.”


“Brownsten.  The guy writing the biography on Dadi. He’s dead too.”

Jack just chuckled. “Well,” he finally said, “You should title your dissertation ‘Do Dadi and Die’.”.

“This is serious, Jack. I don’t know where else to turn.”

“Well, you better do something soon, before, you know, you die or something …” More laughter.

In spite of myself, I cracked a smile. “Okay, so my dissertation is called ‘Do Dadi and Die’, but really, seriously, what should I do now?”

“Do the Beethoven piano concerto stuff you were talking about a year or so ago.”

As soon as he said it, I knew I couldn’t begin again. “Jack, I’m 8 months into this already. My abstract’s been accepted…” I trailed off. “Well, Okay, I guess I’ll contact Brownsten’s widow, try the archives in Spain again and go to work. How’s that?”

“Sounds good. Why don’t you follow up that lead on the family down in Puerto Rico? Dadi left some children and they may still live in Puerto Rico – why not look them up and try to contact them?”

Of course, I didn’t want Jack to know I’d forgotten about the family in San Juan. Dadi had two living children and they may have some of their father’s papers.  That had been on my list of things to do. Jack remembers everything. It’s frustrating at times. “Yeah, I’ll do that. I’ve got to go to work. Shit, it’s 2:00 already, I was supposed to be there at 1:30. Are we still on for lunch tomorrow?”

“Sure, we’ll talk about this more then. Okay? Are you all right?” Concern edged into his voice.

“Yeah, sure, it’s just that the guy was in his mid-30’s, you know, and just finished his dissertation … well, whatever. I’m fine. I’ll see you at the Pizza Palace at 12 or so? – Okay? And thanks Jack, we’ll talk more tomorrow.”

I hung up. I was still uneasy, but felt better. Jack’s gallows humor was what I needed, I guess. I went into the bathroom and washed my face and hands. Looking at myself, I realized that I had more lines around my eyes and mouth than yesterday.  When you are in your mid-thirties and still in school, you tend to age much faster.  I put some undercover stick on – much needed – then some mascara, hoping that I would look more human afterwards. My boyfriend Carlos always says that my skin is so white that I glow in the dark, so blush was in order.  I also put a little gray eye shadow on to bring out my gray eyes.  I brushed out my hair and put it back in one of those ties with the different color balls on the ends your mother always used when you were a kid. I had a zillion of them, but could only find one or two at a time. Afterwards, I definitely felt better.

I finally looked at the clock, wondering if I should call in sick to work, but figured that I could still face it.

I threw on my jacket, grabbed my purse and headed for the door.

Boston in October is absolutely gorgeous. As I hit the street, I looked up. In between yellow, red and green leaves, the sky was a light blue with little puffy clouds. It was chilly enough for a jacket but warm enough that people still ate outside at night on Newbury Street. When the wind blew, there was a hint of the cold winter ahead, which made everyone appreciate the warmth during the day even more. Walking in the sun, I immediately felt better.

I lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment in the South End, a funky neighborhood behind Copley Square, complete with a great mix of people, a smattering of restaurants and small businesses.  Best of all, there were basically no students. Recently, the prices for apartments have gotten outrageous, but my landlord seems to have forgotten all about me, and I haven’t gotten a rent increase in 4 years. I turned from Columbus and walked down Massachusetts Ave, past Symphony Hall and the Mother Church then left onto Commonwealth Ave. I got to the Music Library exactly one and a half hours late. As I hurried in, the music librarian looked up and raised her eyebrows.

“Sorry, Helen. I was on the phone to Greenhill Publishers. I’ll stay an hour later to make up the time.”

“Okay, Leigh, but try harder next time. I understand all about the funk you’re in.”

That’s what I like about Helen. She got out of grad school just a few years ago and knows what it’s like. She’s covered for me, made excuses for me and has yet to seriously bug me. In other words, she’s the perfect boss.  On the other hand, I do lots of work for her.  I’m probably, no, make that definitely, over-qualified for the job, but it pays the rent and my health insurance so I don’t complain about it more than once a day. Helen also puts up with my whining, so I guess it’s close to ideal.

I sat down at the desk and went through my email, then the job postings on the internet – good opportunity if I wanted to live in Montana and work 80+ hours a week as a flute, piano and choral conductor and at the same time teach all the music history courses they offer – I passed. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like Montana, but I just need to live in a city. If Moose Creek Montana had a great record store or two, a THX movie theater along with at least a few museums, a good symphony orchestra, not to mention a first-class health food store and some good restaurants, I’d be there. But since it probably has a McDonald’s and a Wal-mart, I’ll pass.

Work seemed piled up all over my desk. Actually, it was stuff I hadn’t wanted to work on and so, today, I just gritted my teeth and went at it. NPR was droning in my headphones, something about a Crime Bill. Since becoming a musicologist, or at least a musicology graduate student, I can’t even have music on in the background – voices talking, talk show hosts in particular, I can zone out, but music demands that I stop and listen. I used to like the music in restaurants – no more. My boyfriend, Carlos, is always surprised when I say something about it when he doesn’t even realize there’s any on.

Work was particularly slow today. Not that I didn’t have work to do, but I was slow. Having gotten through a small stack of CD’s and processed a few requests from patrons, I looked up as Helen stopped to talk.

“So, what did Greenhill say about Dr. Brownsten? Did you get his number?”

“Helen, you’ll never believe it. He’s dead too. I know I’m beginning to sound flaky, but he’s now the third I’ve discovered. What do you think? I mean, it’s weird, isn’t it?”

She seemed to consider it for a moment – it was nice to be taken seriously. “So, who else. I remember the grad student in Chicago, car accident, right?”

“Yeah. We had been writing back and forth on email and it stopped. Then I found out, car accident – down in Puerto Rico. Having been there and seeing how they drive, I understand it. But it seemed like a freak accident – no other cars were involved. I didn’t get the details. And then there was the historian from Kansas; Cutridge his name was I think, who is still missing and now Brownsten. I don’t know. Brownsten got his PhD a few years ago. He was almost my age. Helen, tell me I’m crazy to be worried. Please. I’m getting anxious.”

Instead of reassuring me, Helen invited me to dinner. Staying an extra hour was forgotten – at least for now, and we walked down to Cafe Luna for some good pasta. After ordering, Helen turned our conversation immediately to Dadi and the deaths I had stumbled upon. Helen has intense green eyes – eyes that have always held my attention. She placed her hand over mine while she was talking. “Leigh, I know I read too many mysteries and this is probably just in my mind, but what seems strange to me is that all these people – the grad student, Brownsten and Cutridge, were all in good health, young and working on the same project.  All my mystery books say the same thing – there is no such thing as coincidences.  You’ve got some time at work, Carlos has some money that he can loan you so you can take off. Just go to Puerto Rico and do your research.  Don’t you have a lead down there and wasn’t that where the grad student from Chicago died? Follow the lead on Dadi but at the same time ask around about the car accident.  And be careful. Do me that favor, okay?”

I thought about it. After four glasses of wine it sounded like a good plan. “Carlos is out of town until Wednesday – business. I’ll talk to him then. And don’t worry about me. I’m just a bit anxious, nervous, whatever.”

We then turned to other subjects – books and music and then how boring work was. Helen’s a professional librarian, which means she’s got more interesting stuff to do than I do, but of course more of the annoying things as well – like dealing with other librarians.  After dinner, I decided to walk home. Instead of my usual breakneck speed, I just strolled along. Lots of people were out on the street doing exactly what I was – savoring every moment outdoors before the zero degree temperatures hit us.  I turned onto my street and up to the front door. The door was slightly ajar and I grew vaguely annoyed that no one had bothered to shut it properly. While I shut the door behind me, I saw my cat, Jabba, on the stairs.  He seemed a bit twitchy and jumped a foot in the air when I opened the inner door and called his name.

“Jabba, you bad cat, how did you get out?”

He came down to me, but didn’t look so great. Carlos always complains that I project my feelings onto the cat. That’s not necessarily true. After twelve years of living with Jabba, we know each other very well. I can always tell when there’s something wrong. I knew it as soon as I came up to the second landing and my door was wide open. My immediate thought was that Jabba had gotten it open somehow, but looking into his eyes – very pretty and very blank, I realized that Jabba had nothing to do with this.  I stood at the doorsill and couldn’t will myself in.  I craned my neck around and saw a mess.  From my front door I could see my living room and bedroom. No one was there. My adrenaline was in high gear and I began shaking from head to toe.  Things seemed to have been scattered all over the place. I’m not exactly a pig, but I do tend towards mess.  The mess in the apartment now was none of my doing. Papers seemed to be thrown all about, books were pushed out of bookcases.  I noticed with some degree of smugness that the stereo was still there – maybe it was just junkies looking for quick cash. I began to get angry and barged into the place, picked up the phone and dialed 911.

The police in my neighborhood are great. They’ve always come within minutes of my calling, and believe me I’ve had occasion to call. Even so, it felt like an hour until they arrived on my doorstep. I glanced at the clock – four minutes 10 seconds. Not a real emergency to them, I guess. The crime had already happened. As soon as they showed up, I relaxed a bit and showed them around the apartment. I hadn’t been in the bedroom yet, but it was far worse than the living room. Almost all my files had been pulled out. They were everywhere. I gasped as I realized my computer was gone. Hard disk – everything. The monitor sat clumsily on its side as if it had been carelessly tossed there. All my music books were on the floor or thrown on the bed. Articles had been carelessly ripped out of their folders. It seemed senseless, almost mean. Don’t get me wrong, all robberies are mean – I’ve had six in my lifetime, three in this apartment alone. The pattern was always the same – the stereo gone, maybe the TV – once it was the blender and food processor. Nothing ever personal never pictures or books or letters. But this robbery was different. This upset me more than any of the others. This hit at my being.

I started to explain to the cops all that was missing. My hard disk was gone – the modem and monitor were still there. But then all the computer diskettes that I always threw in a corner of the desk were gone too.  All my backups, my letters, taxes, correspondence – all gone.  I sat down on the bed, my knees were really rubbery by now and I felt like throwing up.  The lump in my throat prevented me from talking for a bit.  I didn’t want to cry in front of the cops, so I just tried breathing deeply.  They were patient.

The taller one said, “Ummm…. Miss Maxwell?  Is there anything else missing?”

I looked around.  “The alarm clock is still here. I opened the top drawer – all my jewelry is still here, but it’s all junk anyway. Maybe files, but who knows. It is such a mess.  Why would anyone want to take Xeroxed articles with notes in them anyway?”  My eyes rested on a highlighted passage, “Associative tonality is used by Wagner in three ways ….” I felt like crying.

After my experience with the blender and food processor, I checked out the kitchen. It was such a relief to find something that was exactly as I had left it. Here, at least, was something that was still mine.  I sat at the small breakfast table next to the window. “I think that’s it. They didn’t even take the stereo.”

“What would you say was the value of the items lost?”

“Invaluable, at least to me.” I paused. They waited.  “Oh, I don’t know. Let me think – probably about a thousand bucks. The computer is a few years old already. I had been thinking of replacing it, but I couldn’t afford it. Well, now I’ll have to.  I was hoping to get out of debt sometime in the near future. I’ll need a police report for the insurance. At least I have that.”

“You can pick it up tomorrow at area B. Do you have anyone who could come by and help you clean up? Or would you like a ride somewhere?”

“I’m fine, really. Thanks for your help.” I shut the door after them and looked around. Jabba was already settling in for a nap. I picked him up and cuddled on the sofa. He started purring and I felt better immediately. I picked up the phone and called my friends one by one. After the fourth explanation, I began to calm down. Everyone was sympathetic, everyone invited me to stay the night. I finally got around to calling the management company and they said they’d send over a locksmith right away. I sat there and wanted Carlos to come home. Right now he was somewhere in Mexico. I wasn’t exactly sure where. I went over to the answering machine and noticed the light was blinking. I hit play.  Carlos’ voice was clear, “Hi. Hoped to catch you in. I’ll be home a day early. I’m coming home tomorrow about six. I’ll call you then. Love you. Bye.” Relief surged through my body. Carlos would be here in 18 hours.

My buzzer sounded and I went downstairs. At 2 in the morning everyone looked like an ax murderer to me, but the man outside had a toolbox and a cap that said ASAP Locksmith, so I let him in. He changed my tumblers and then when he noticed I still seemed nervous, put another dead bolt into the door and a chain for the inside. When he left, I felt better. I threw the new brass dead bolt in place, put the little gold chain across the door, picked up the cat, threw everything off the bed in a heap and lay down. I needed sleep and was absolutely exhausted, but I tossed and turned. I imagined getting home just 10 minutes earlier to stop the thief. I imagined myself demanding the computer back and actually getting it.  I finally drifted off dreaming of dark alleys, stormy seas and huge boats being tossed ashore. I woke with a start at 4:30. Jabba was awake and hungry as usual. I padded into the kitchen, fed him and got back into bed. This time, I slept deeply and without dreams. I didn’t know it was going to be the last deep sleep I got for a while.

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