Song Without End
By David Linzee
David Linzee has written four suspense novels and a work of non-fiction under his own name and collaborated with John Lutz on "Final Seconds," published by Kensington in 1998. Linzee lives in St. Louis with his wife and their cat, Bob, who unlike most author's cats, neither writes nor appears in mystery novels.
Mr. Larkin had called ahead to the Police Department, and Officer Becky Miller was waiting for him. She smiled as she reached across the desk to shake his hand. After she heard what he had to say, she wouldn’t be smiling anymore, he thought. It wouldn’t matter that he had taught her in high school.
“This is Detective McLaughlin of the State Police,” Becky said.
A hard-eyed young man in a blue suit stepped up and gave Mr. Larkin a crushing handshake. “I’m in charge of the Silk Tie Strangler investigation,” he said. “I understand you told Officer Miller you have information on the case.”
“Yes. I hope I can help. You see, it was my home wherethat is, they found the body of that poor girl in the woods behind my cottage.”
McLaughlin nodded. “Victim Number Three. Susan Leary. Last seen alive hitchhiking on the Merritt Parkway.”
“You say that as if you expect there to be a Victim Number Four,” said Becky.
“This psycho won’t stop. He has to be caught.”
“I was watching from my kitchen window as they brought the body out.” Mr. Larkin shivered. “And to thinkhe must have passed right by my house dragging the body from his car to the woods. In the middle of the night. And I was all alone.”
McLaughlin smirked. He was young and strong and had a gun on his hip, while Mr. Larkin was a 67 year-old man. “The Strangler generally operates close to New York City, if that’s any comfort to you. He only came up here to dump the body.”
Becky frowned. She didn’t like his tone. “I think you ought to hear Mr. Larkin out, Detective. Because frankly, you don’t have much, do you? All you’ve got to go on is the expensive red silk ties the Strangler leaves around the necks of his victims. You don’t even know why he always uses silk.”
“Oh, we know that. Cheap synthetic ties stretch. Silk ones don’t. So silk does the job better.”
No one spoke for a moment. Then Becky waved Mr. Larkin to the chair in front of her desk. McLaughlin remained standing.
Mr. Larkin’s mouth had gone quite dry, now he was coming to the difficult part. “After they took the body away, Becky, you came to my door and asked me some questions.”
She glanced at a paper on the desk. “You said you hadn’t seen or heard anything. I said I supposed you’d gone to bed early and you said no, you were up late, grading papers.” Turning to McLaughlin, she explained. “Mr. Larkin teaches music at the high school. He’ll be retiring next year, after 40 years.”
“Congratulations,” said McLaughlin dryly. “Now can we get to the point?”
Mr. Larkin thought they might as well. “The fact is, Becky, I lied to you.”
Her eyes opened wide. “Mr. Larkin!”
“You mean, you did see or hear something?” said McLaughlin.
“No, no. I never would have kept something important like that back. But I did lie about what I was doing.”
“You weren’t grading papers?”
“No. I was writing a song. An advertising jingle.”
“Yes. It’s called ‘So Fresh Your Tongue Will Tingle.’ For Surge! mouthwash.”
“But Mr. Larkin,” Becky said. “You taught me to play ‘Für Elise.’”
He sat up straight in the hard chair. “Yes, well, this opportunity came up, and I’d have been a fool to let it pass. You know what they pay for a 10 second jingle?”
“I fail to see the relevance”McLaughlin began, but Becky interrupted.
“How did the opportunity come up?”
“I happened to meet up with Sandra Blackanother former pupil, but from long before your time, Becky. She’s very high up in an advertising agency in New York. She’d heard I was going to retire soon, and she asked me what I was going to do with my golden years, after 40 years in teaching. And I said that after 40 years of teaching, there wasn’t much I could afford to do. Not that I’m complaining. But I’ve always wanted to go over to Salzburg, for the music festival.”
“And this Sandra Black had an idea to make it possible?”
“Yes. Her agency was having a devil of a time with this Surge! commercial. They had lyrics, but no one could come up with a tune. She offered me a chance at it.”
“How did it go?” Becky asked.
“It was harder than I expected. I worked through many nights. Finally I was ready to go down to New York and play my composition for Sandra. I couldn’t have been more nervous and excited if I’d been making my debut at Carnegie Hall.”
“Did she like it?”
Mr. Larkin sighed. “She didn’t say anything. Embarrassed that she’d even offered me the chance, I suppose. I asked this young fellow, her assistant, what was wrong with it, and he said it just wasn’t distinctive and memorable enough to stand out.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Larkin,” said Becky.
“Sad story,” said McLaughlin. “If that’s it, I’ll be heading back to my office.”
“That should have been it,” Mr. Larkin said. “I’d gone into it strictly for the money, and there wasn’t going to be any money. I wanted to forget about it. But I couldn’t.”
“I know how much you wanted to go to Salzburg,” said Becky.
“No, it’s not that. It’s that I can’t get that tune out of my head.”
Becky raised her eyebrows.
“When I was young, I wanted to write songs,” he explained. “I thought teaching would be only temporary. But one thing led to another andwell, the first piece I’ve composed in 30 years was ‘So Fresh Your Tongue Will Tingle.’ That fellow, Sandra’s assistant, he’s a professional, and you can’t question his judgment. But to me, my tune is memorable. Now, I’m not going to sing you the whole jingle“
“Thank God,” McLaughlin muttered.
“but it’s constantly going through my head. I catch myself humming it in the car or when I’m shaving. I stop myself, of course, but it’s too late. I’m already thinking about how hard I worked and how high my hopes were andwell, Becky, it’s very annoying.”
“I can imagine. So what did you do?”
“Only one thing to do. Use music to drive out music. I spent my evenings going through my CD collection. The sprightliest airs of Mozart. The most powerful overtures of Wagner. But next morning I’d be humming ‘So Fresh Your Tongue Will Tingle.’”
“Perhaps this will get better in time.”
“I couldn’t wait. The tune wouldn’t let me alone. So yesterday, when I saw in the paper that there was going to be a concert at Madison Square Garden by Shattered Idol, I decided to go.”
“Shattered Idol?” said McLaughlin. “That old heavy metal band?”
“That was what I wanted. Pounding drums. Electric guitars screaming for mercy. If anything could drive that jingle out of my head“
“I can’t believe you did this,” said Becky. “Didn’t you feel kind of out of place?”
“You know, Becky, the men in Shattered Idol aren’t that much younger than I am. And as for the fans, well, the ones around me weren’t exactly dancing in the aisles.”
“And did it do the trick?”
“By the time the concert was over, I felt quite numb. My head was perfectly empty. Everybody else must have been in a stupor, too, because we were all quiet as we filed out. I was almost at the main doors when I heard it.”
“The opening bars of ‘So Fresh Your Tongue Will Tingle.’”
“Oh no! You were humming it again?”
Mr. Larkin shook his head. “It wasn’t me.”
“What?” barked McLaughlin?
“Someone in the crowd behind me was whistling my tune. I turned and looked. I don’t know what I expectedmaybe to see Sandra or her assistant. But all the faces were strange to me.”
“I don’t get it,” said Becky. “Who else had heard the tune?”
“No one,” said Mr. Larkin. “Except the Strangler.”
“Now wait a minute,” McLaughlin stepped forward, shaking his head.
“I told you, I was working on the song the night he dumped the body behind my house. I played it on the piano over and over. The window was open. And the Strangler passed close enough to hear.”
“You can’t be sure of that,” said McLaughlin.
“No. But I am sure I never played that song for anyone else. And I heard it last night at Madison Square Garden.”
“My God, Mr. Larkin,” Becky said, “he must have been close enough to touch. What did you do?”
“There was nothing I could do.” Mr. Larkin looked down. His hands were clenched at the memory of his fear and frustration. “So many people, packed so close together. I couldn’t see who was whistling. I thought of trying to find a policeman but it was already too late. People were filing out the doors. Disappearing into the night. I’m sorry, Becky.”
“It’s all right. At least you came and told us about it.”
“Officer Miller,” said McLaughlin. “Is it possible you’re taking this story seriously? The Strangler is supposed to have heard this little jingle, remembered it, and then just happened to attend the same concert as your friend here?”
“I know it sounds strange,” said Mr. Larkin. “But when you get to be my age, young man, you’ll realize anything can happen, especially in New York City.”
Becky said, “I can’t think of any other explanation than the one Mr. Larkin has given us.”
“You can’t? I can. Some guy was whistling some tune, and this geezer imagined it was his jingle.”
Mr. Larkin drew himself up. “I could not have been mistaken. It was my song.”
“Listen, Detective, isn’t this worth checking out? Lots of people buy tickets with credit cards. You could go over the records.”
“Try to chase down everybody who bought a ticket to a concert at Madison Square Garden? You think we have a couple of weeks to waste on that? I’ve already wasted enough time.”
With a final disgusted look at Mr. Larkin, he left the office.
Bicycling back to his cottage, Mr. Larkin thought that he should have expected his help to be scorned. Still, it shocked him that McLaughlin would think he was so senile he couldn’t recognize his own song. He’d labored over it with joy, putting into it a lifetime of musical experiencenot to mention a great deal of his hope for what future remained to him. Even if it was just an unsuccessful ad jingle.
He propped his bike against the wall of his cottage and went in the front door, whichas usualhe hadn’t bothered to lock. A young man was sitting on the piano bench. At first, Mr. Larkin thought he was here for a lesson. He was such a mild-looking young man, and so nicely dressed in suit and tie.
A red silk tie.
Mr. Larkin gasped and stumbled backward.
“You know who I am, I see,” said the young man. “So you know what I have to do.” He moved closer, studying Mr. Larkin through narrowed eyes. “I noticed you last night at the Garden, the way you started and looked around. But I didn’t recognize you right away. I’d caught only a glimpse of you through the window, the night I was here. By the time I figured out that you were a danger to me, the crowd had separated us.”
The man’s fingers began to undo the knot of his tie. “I am sorry,” he went on, in his soft voice. “You don’t deserve this. Not like thatthat girl I dumped in the woods back there. She and the others, they deserved what they got. But it was just bad luck we were both at that concert. Now I can’t let you go to the police.”
He must tell the man he had already been to the police. It might save his life. It was the only thing that might. But he couldn’t speak. His windpipe seemed to have shrunk to the diameter of a drinking straw. It felt just as easy to crush.
The Strangler continued with his one-sided conversation. He seemed to like talking to people whom he had frightened into silence. “I wish I’d never gone to that concert at all. I’m not a heavy metal fan. Know what I was doing there? You won’t believe it. I was trying to drown out that tune. The one you were playing the night I was here. I haven’t been able to get the damned thing out of my head.”
Still unable to speak, Mr. Larkin stared at him.
The Strangler was blinking rapidly and his voice was rising. The façade of normalcy was beginning to crack. “I tried many things. Many, many things. Hung around construction sites till my head rang with jackhammers. Sat in videogame arcades for hours. Once I followed an ice-cream truck for twenty blocks. Twenty straight blocks of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ and at the end of it that miserable little ditty was still buzzing around in my head like a trapped fly.”
He had the tie off and was wrapping its ends around his fists with jerky, convulsive movements. Time was running out, and Mr. Larkin found his voice. “It won’t do any good to kill me. I’ve already been to the police.”
“They didn’t believe me. I’m no danger to you. You can just leave. But if youif you kill me, then they’ll know I was telling the truth.” He summoned up his calmest, gentlest teacher’s tone. “Do you understand?”
The Strangler’s chest was heaving. His gaze skittered around the room. “The problem is, I can’t keep going back.”
“To that night in the woods. Dragging the body. It was so heavy. I was so cold. So scared. And the piano coming from your house. That tune. Every time I hum it, I go back. What is that song, old man? Where’d you get it from?”
“It’s an advertising jingle. I wrote it.”
“You wrote it? You wrote it?” The rapid blinking had become a spasm that contorted his entire face. He raised his hands with the silk tie taut between them. “Then maybe I’m not so sorry about what I have to do.”
He sprang. Mr. Larkin fell back, but not quickly enough. The tie was around his throat and tightening. He sank to the floor under the younger man’s weight. His lungs were burning. He squeezed his eyes shut in agony.
Suddenly the pressure let up. He opened his eyes. The Strangler was standing with his hands raised. The muzzle of a large black pistol was pressed to his temple. “You okay, Mr. Larkin?” asked Officer Becky Miller.
After he had left her office, Becky hadn’t been able to keep her mind on her paperwork. She felt that McLaughlin was making a big mistake. She decided to drive over to Mr. Larkin’s, to ask him to tell his story again, to an FBI agent. And that was how she happened to make the collar that brought lasting fame to her, and no end of embarrassment to McLaughlin.
The television news of the arrest brought Mr. Larkin a phone call from Sandra Black. She had fired her assistant, who obviously couldn’t spot true jingle-writing talent. She invited Mr. Larkin down to the city for lunch. But he demurred. He was working on something else, a smoldering ballad he thought would be just right for a cabaret singer he knew. It had a slow but catchy beat. In fact, it had pushed “So Fresh Your Tongue Will Tingle” right out of his head.
David Linzee ©2005
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