Next Sunday at the Bazaar
David Evans Katz
The dealers assembled in different places every week, sometimes in an old warehouse, sometimes in a hotel suite, sometimes out of doors, but usually within a two hundred mile radius of Salzburg. It was up to the counterparties (as the buyers called themselves) to find them. The secrecy of the informal network was a means of self-vetting that ensured only the most serious buyers and sellers participated. And, of course, all transactions were strictly cash and carry. The Bazaar had conducted its operations face-to-face in this manner since its formal organization in a private meeting room at the closing session of the Treaty of Versailles. For centuries before that, principals had rarely met; they conducted transactions from afar using intermediaries, but its participants had always known it as the Bazaar.
It was at the Bazaar that ancient alchemists had traded their arcane elements and potions. There, too, kings and princes could retain a dealer or a counterparty to dispose of or acquire royal treasures. And if the Premier of France wanted to learn one of the Italian Foreign Minister’s secrets, he would send an emissary to the Bazaar who would purchase it for him — at an exorbitant fee. The items bought and sold might be mundane or mystical, precious or pedestrian, but always they were objects of desire.
Falsch was the most respected counterparty in the Bazaar; at least he aspired to be. He was discriminating. He was demanding. He was decisive. But deep down, he knew that the dealers respected only money.
The dealer Grimalkin claimed to have come from Macedonia, but Falsch didn’t believe him. His accent was feigned, and he looked more oriental than European.
Falsch examined the items on Grimalkin’s display table. He selected a decorative wooden box and held it up. “What’s this?”
Grimalkin bowed his head slightly, turning his eyes toward the floor. He said, “It is an étui, Monsieur Falsch – carved by a Maltese shepherd and hand-painted by a nun from the Convent of the Blessed Virgin in Lija.”
Falsch turned it over in his hands. There, on the bottom, he saw black handwriting. “What’s this?” he asked, pointing at the scrawl.
“It is the signature of the artist.”
Grimalkin raised his head and looked at Falsch’s chin, avoiding his eyes. Perhaps he’s afraid that I’ll recognize his duplicity, Falsch thought.
“For you, Monsieur Falsch, only thirty thousand pounds. A bargain at twice the price.”
Falsch put it back on the table. He wouldn’t have paid thirty thousand pounds for a wooden box even if the pope had painted it.
“An outlandish price for such a thing, Mr. Grimalkin.”
“Perhaps for the box itself, Monsieur, but not for what’s inside.”
Falsch understood. This was not a consignment item. The étui was meant for someone else — someone who already knew what was inside and who would not question the price.
“What else have you got?”
Grimalkin hesitated, appearing to ponder the question, deciding which of his objets d’art he would show. At last, he made a decision and reached down behind the table. After some rustling of papers and the sound of boxes scraping against the parquet floor, he produced a small package wrapped in gold foil.
“It is a special piece, Monsieur Falsch. I would not offer it to someone who could not appreciate its worth.”
Falsch knew a set-up when he heard one, but he reached for the package anyway.
Grimalkin abruptly withdrew his hand. “It is expensive,” he said, looking Falsch in the eyes for the first time. “Are you willing to pay dearly for something like this?”
Falsch frowned. He said, “How can I tell until I’ve seen it?” He offered his outstretched palm again.
Grimalkin gently peeled back the foil and produced a polished black sphere, about the size of a Chinese plum. Falsch held it in his hand. It was heavy and smooth, but no more remarkable than a large ball bearing.
“I don’t understand,” Falsch said. “What is it?”
Grimalkin smiled inscrutably. “It is a Magister Stone — more ancient than the Essenes — taken from a burial chamber at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by the Ottoman Turks. Don’t even ask how I came to possess it.”
Falsch rolled it around in his hand and then held it up to examine it more closely. The overhead lamplight enhanced its ebony luster.
“Is it some kind of precious gem?”
Grimalkin shook his head. “It is far more valuable than that, Monsieur Falsch. Men have died to possess it.”
“But what is it?” Falsch asked. He was losing patience.
“I have already told you. It is a Magister Stone, formed by nature into a perfect sphere. Legend says that only six were extracted from a mine in the Carpathian Mountains; Alexander the Great gave one to each of his lieutenants. After Alexander died, they were lost. Over the centuries, only two others have been recovered.”
Falsch handed the stone back to him. He had no use for such nonsense. He surveyed the other items on the table and, seeing nothing of interest, he prepared to leave. But Grimalkin stepped aside, revealing an antique spinet behind him. Its cabinet was ornately carved and covered in gold leaf. Something about it drew him closer.
“That’s an unusual piano,” Falsch said. “Where did you get it?”
“Ah! I thought you would appreciate it. It belonged to the Hungarian prodigy, Österháziy. It was discovered only recently by a collector in Solymàr. It hasn’t been seen since Österháziy’s death more than a hundred years ago.”
Falsch’s jaw dropped. He stepped around the table and took a closer look. “Is this the piano he used to compose ‘Irina’ and the four numbered sonatas?”
“The very same.”
“Can you prove it?”
Grimalkin removed a folded paper from his breast pocket and handed it to Falsch. “Here is the statement from Ausberg & Sons, the manufacturer. Their experts have examined it, and it conforms to the company’s record of the spinet they built in 1802 to Österháziy’s specifications. There are contemporary paintings of Österháziy with the piano, as well as his farewell letter — his suicide note — that describes it in detail and which asserts his desire that no one else ever play it again.” Grimalkin lifted the keyboard cover. “If you look here, you will see the signature of Auguste Ausberg; more important, there is the unique eighty-ninth key.”
A full step above high C was an additional natural key — a D with no C sharp in between but, unlike the yellowing ivory of the naturals or the ebony of the sharps and flats, the extra key was polished walnut. Falsch reached out and tapped it. There was no sound.
“The hammer for the eighty-ninth key has been tied back,” Grimalkin said.
Falsch was fascinated. This was the most legendary musical instrument in Europe. André Österháziy was a preternatural genius whose compositions eclipsed the intricacies of Mozart and the depth of Beethoven. While not nearly as prolific as Bach, his four numbered sonatas and his musical ode “Irina” were regarded as five of the greatest pieces of piano music ever written. Then Österháziy killed himself in 1828, leaving the enigmatic letter insisting that his piano never be played again. The piano itself subsequently disappeared, engendering an enigma about the composer and his magnificent instrument.
“How much?” Falsch asked.
Grimalkin smiled. “Come back next Sunday, and I will quote you a price.”
Falsch blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“I will name my price next week, and there will be no negotiation. You may accept or decline; it is entirely at your discretion.”
“Next Sunday, Monsieur Falsch.”
Falsch waited impatiently for his runner to bring him the telegram disclosing the location of the forthcoming Bazaar. On Thursday afternoon, it came — three o’clock Sunday in suite 800 at the Hotel Rinaldo in Vienna. He was relieved. He wouldn’t have to travel by train; his driver could take him in the Bentley on Sunday morning.
All week long, he had plumbed every source he knew for anything about the Österháziy spinet, but the results were scanty at best — a word here, a rumor there — all alluding to its priceless value and mysterious disappearance. With each new bit of information, Falsch’s desire grew. Armand Dietrich in Istanbul sent a wire confirming that Sultan Mahmud II had once tried to acquire the instrument from Österháziy in 1817. Dietrich’s contact at the Topkapi museum said that the curators kept the Österháziy correspondence under lock and key.
Vyaslav Chernenko reported that the Hermitage’s agents in Leningrad had tried to track down the piano as recently as 1930 without result. The Bolsheviks officially denied knowledge of the attempt, but Chernenko’s sources reached all the way into the Politburo, and he was certain the report was true.
From Brussels, Pierre Landrieu sent word that the piano had been destroyed prior to Österháziy’s death. Only fools believed it still existed, he said. But Falsch knew Landrieu’s philosophy; Landrieu saw conspiracies everywhere and believed all authorities were liars.
Other rumors came from Emil van Horn in The Hague. He had heard that Franz Joseph of Austria had acquired the Österháziy spinet and hidden it away at Schönbrunn Palace. Yet another held that Bismarck himself carried it back from France after the Franco-Prussian War, but it had disappeared from Berlin around the turn of the century. According to van Horn, some believed that possession of the instrument conveyed mystical power.
Count Isak Amalie, a distant relative of the Danish King, wired Falsch a warning that the Österháziy spinet was possessed by the devil himself, and that any man who acquired it would come to grief. Falsch laughed at the absurdity of the logic. Certainly Österháziy had come to grief, but not before giving the world musical works that bordered on the divine.
Grimalkin would have no difficulty selling such a prize. He was a dealer, an intermediary. To him, the piano’s value lay solely in the money it could command. But Falsch was a music lover who could appreciate its intrinsic worth as well as its value in the marketplace. Grimalkin was offering the piano for an undisclosed sum, and, if Falsch came to the Bazaar with sufficient funds to buy it, he could, if he chose, sell it at a healthy profit to any number of wealthy men who shared an appreciation for Österháziy’s legacy. Already, inquiries had arrived from Rome, Munich and Paris.
If Grimalkin understood the piano’s true value, which was likely, the price would be astronomical. Falsch would have to assemble a consortium to garner sufficient funds, and he had only two days in which to do so. He would have to meet Grimalkin’s price on the spot or he wouldn’t likely get another opportunity to bid.
Falsch sent coded telegrams to his financial contacts in Zurich, London and Amsterdam. From each one, he received a return wire confirming letters of credit on the Bank of Vienna. By Friday afternoon, he had arranged for an irrevocable cash demand note executed in blank and good for any amount up to a million pounds sterling. If that wasn’t enough to buy the spinet, Falsch might need the help of Croesus himself.
On Sunday at ten minutes after three o’clock, Falsch knocked twice on the door to suite 800 at the Hotel Rinaldo. Rieffer, the Bazaar’s major-domo, opened the door, bowed his head and silently waved him inside. There were only a dozen dealers present in the spacious parlor, each one seated at a small table, and five counterparties. Falsch knew everyone in the room. Those not engaged in negotiations nodded their greetings to him. It was customary for the counterparties not to speak directly to each other while the Bazaar was in session; one spoke only to the dealers.
Falsch approached Grimalkin who sat at a table by a heavily draperied window at the far end of the room. The piano itself wasn’t there. With a buyer in hand, Grimalkin would not have gone to the trouble of having it hauled up to the eighth floor of a Vienna hotel.
With no word of greeting, the dealer said, “Two million pounds sterling.”
Falsch smiled to himself. This was a good sign. Grimalkin’s opening offer was only twice what he had at his command. He responded, “Not a penny more than one million, and that’s generous.”
Grimalkin looked him steadily in the eye and said, “As I told you last Sunday, Monsieur Falsch, my price is not negotiable. You may accept or decline; it is entirely at your discretion.”
Falsch balked — a mistake. To show weakness or hesitation was unacceptable at the Bazaar. He should have either nodded once to accept the terms or simply shook his head and walked away. He had to think fast if he hoped to save his reputation. He could telephone the banker Loewenschild; he was the closest thing to Croesus and only person Falsch knew in Vienna who could guarantee a million pounds on such short notice. But if Falsch accepted Grimalkin’s terms now and failed to get the additional funds from Loewenschild, he would be ruined.
Grimalkin said, “I must have your answer now, Monsieur Falsch. Another counterparty is prepared to meet my price.”
Falsch grimaced. He looked around; the other counterparties were engaged in negotiations with dealers — all except Kaspar von Pabst who was fidgeting in a corner and looking nervously at Grimalkin. Von Pabst was a parvenu who wore his eagerness as proudly as he did his regimental tie. Falsch turned back to Grimalkin and said, “Von Pabst? Where would he get two million pounds?”
“That is not my business, Monsieur. Besides, you know that all counterparty transactions are confidential. Your answer?”
Falsch decided to take the gamble. “Yes,” he said. He reached into his breast pocket and produced the irrevocable cash demand note. “I have a million here. I’ll need an hour to arrange the rest.”
It was Grimalkin’s turn to grimace. “You know the rules. Cash. No exceptions.”
Falsch glared and said, “How dare you? This is an irrevocable demand note drawn on the Bank of Vienna. It’s as good as cash. If you question this, you’ll never set foot in the Bazaar again.”
Grimalkin was unmoved. “I was speaking of the other million, Monsieur. You do not have it.”
“I’ll get it within the hour. You have my word.”
The dealer considered the proposition. At last he said, “One hour. Not a minute more. But I will hold the demand note for good faith.”
Falsch was horrified. “Do you mean–”
Grimalkin dismissed Falsch’s fears with a wave of his hand. He said, “Not to worry, Monsieur. If you are unsuccessful, I will return the note, less a one percent option fee of course.”
It was a risk Falsch was willing to take. The ten thousand pound fee would come out of his end if necessary.
Falsch telephoned the banker from the lobby of the hotel. Fortunately, Loewenschild was at home and, after a hurried explanation by Falsch, he agreed to open his bank on a Sunday to accommodate one of his best clients. Of course, there would be a substantial transaction fee for the inconvenience, but Falsch was willing to pay.
Loewenschild met him at the bank alone. He was an old man — more than eighty, Falsch surmised — and he prepared the papers by himself. A clerk could have done the job faster, and the resulting delay kept Falsch from the Hotel Rinaldo for more than the hour he had agreed to with Grimalkin. He urged his driver to make all haste, but he didn’t reach the hotel until four-thirty. Impatiently, he waited for the single elevator to reach the lobby. When it did, he stood back from the doors while the passengers departed, and then he waited yet again while the elevator operator held the car as an elderly couple entered.
“Four, please,” the old man said.
The elevator operator said, “Yes, sir,” and then looked at Falsch.
“Eight, please,” Falsch said.
The car slowly ascended while Falsch fought to maintain his composure. It stopped at four, and the elevator man opened the cage for the elderly couple to alight. “Watch your step,” he said.
The elevator man closed the gate and released the brake. The car ascended faster now, Falsch watching the floors flash by until it reached the eighth floor. Without waiting for the door to open completely, Falsch dashed out into the corridor and walked rapidly toward suite 800, composing himself on the way.
He reached the large oak double doors and knocked twice. When Rieffer didn’t answer immediately, he knocked again. Still, Rieffer didn’t come, so Falsch tried the doorknob, but it was locked. He banged yet again, but the only answer was an echo. Frantic now, Falsch raced back down the corridor and rang for the elevator, knowing even as he ran that he was too late.
When he arrived back in the lobby, he went immediately to the front desk and demanded to know what had happened to the occupants of suite 800.
The front desk clerk gave him an obsequious smile and said, “I’m sorry, sir, but suite 800 is unoccupied.”
“But it was occupied not more than an hour ago. I was there myself.”
“You must be mistaken, sir. Suite 800 has been unoccupied for at least two weeks.”
It was a sham and Falsch knew it. One of Rieffer’s jobs as major-domo was to ensure privacy. He would have paid generously to ensure that all records of the Bazaar’s meeting were erased.
He gave his name to the clerk and asked if anyone had left a message for him. The clerk checked the in-box and found a vellum envelope sealed with red wax addressed to Falsch. Falsch grabbed it eagerly and broke the seal. It read:
Falsch was relieved but astonished. This was the first time he could recall a dealer giving anyone a second chance. He walked across the lobby to the bar entrance, all the while trying to remain calm. He had no choice but to follow through with the deal now; if he failed to do so, he would lose more than the ten thousand pounds option money. He would lose face and, very likely, his place at the Bazaar.
As Falsch entered the dimly lit room, he immediately spotted Grimalkin in a corner booth by himself. He walked over and sat down.
“Well, Monsieur Falsch, do you have the money?”
Falsch handed the dealer another demand note for a million pounds and asked, “When and how can I take delivery?”
“I’ll deposit the demand notes tomorrow. The piano will be delivered to any address you specify on Tuesday.”
Falsch wrote his address on a slip of paper. He passed it across the table without saying anything else; then he turned and left the bar.
The piano arrived at noon on Tuesday. The movers treated it with all the care due such a rare and delicate artifact, and Falsch marveled once again at its beauty. Its gilt-covered Queen Anne legs tapered to ornately carved eagle-talon claws that clutched ebony balls at its feet. Falsch ran his hand along its gold surface, appreciating the craftsmanship; the cabinetry was as much a work of art as the music it had produced. The spinet was more than a mere investment; it was a source of rapture. He had paid twice what he had expected, but he was confident that any one of his European buyers would give him enough to yield a handsome profit if he chose to part with the instrument.
A piano tuner arrived at 1:00 and he, too, was awestruck by the instrument. He set to work, but was puzzled by the eighty-ninth key. “It serves no purpose,” he said. “I’ll untie the hammer, of course, and tune the string, but no pianist would use the note. I don’t understand why it’s here.”
An hour later, the piano tuner finished. He accepted his fee and said, “It’s a magnificent instrument. I’ve never heard a richer tone, even on the finest concert grands. It’s almost as if it were enchanted.”
After the tuner left, Falsch sat at the keyboard. He opened the sheet music for “Irina” and began to play. He was an accomplished pianist but not a master. Although he dearly wanted to hear a virtuoso use the Österháziy spinet, his own meager efforts would have to suffice for the time being.
At first, he fumbled amateurishly with Österháziy’s complex composition, failing to do it justice, but the notes he played pleased him nonetheless. He struggled through the first movement and then stopped. He looked at the walnut key at the high end of the scale and depressed it lightly. There was no immediate sound, and he thought that the piano tuner had failed to untie the hammer. But he pressed the key again and again until a soft high D reverberated in the room, filling the air with a sound that was both long and haunting.
Falsch let the note fade. He sat there, staring at the sheet music with new appreciation for Österháziy’s genius. For the first time, he saw a notation in small print at the bottom of the cover page. He strained his eyes to read it, but the writing was too tiny for him to make out without assistance. He retrieved a magnifying glass from his desk. With the benefit of having Österháziy’s own piano, Falsch understood the notation immediately, but he realized that it must have been a mystery to anyone else. It read:
Falsch knew, of course that the notation d”’ referred to the eighty-ninth key. He replayed the first movement of “Irina” using the original keystroke Österháziy had intended for the thirteenth note of the seventh bar. As soon as he struck the key the first time, the room filled with the sound of its soft high tone, and the following notes were all but lost in its quiet echo. He stopped and began again, this time with more confidence. His fingers skipped across the keys with a skill he didn’t know he possessed, and each time the high D sounded, he felt a flush surging through his body. When he finished playing, he pulled his hands away from the keyboard, his energy drained as though he had been at hard labor rather than playing a sonata.
Falsch was short of breath and perspiring heavily. He felt used-up, both physically and emotionally. He looked around the room and out the window, and was startled to realize it was already dark outside. The clock on the mantel indicated ten-thirty. He’d been playing for hours without knowing it. It was almost too much for his mind to grasp. He looked at the piano differently now. The act of playing it had hypnotized him; he had lost control of his mind and body, surrendering them to Österháziy’s spinet the moment his fingers had touched the keys.
What had Grimalkin sold him? Falsch slammed the cover down on the keys and backed away from the piano. It was dark and cold in the room, but moonlight streamed in through the window, casting an otherworldly glow across the gilt covered instrument. He made up his mind. In the morning, he would cable his contacts in Paris and sell the spinet at once.
Falsch turned on a light in the parlor and poured himself a snifter of Armagnac. He set about building a fire in the hearth and, once it was lit, he sat on the chesterfield and settled back, refreshing his spirits. He hadn’t eaten since before noon, but exhaustion overcame hunger and he dozed off.
Falsch had failed to wind the mantel clock, and the hands had frozen in place at eleven. Thus, it might have been a minute, an hour or even two that he slept in a semi-reclined position on the sofa. His slumber was dreamless at first, but soon distorted images seeped into his brain. Vivid impressions connected randomly, each one more disturbing than the last, until his mind rebelled and roused him to wakefulness. The moonlight had vanished, leaving the room dimly illuminated by the single lamp he had lit earlier. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and, as he struggled to keep them open, he gradually became aware of soft music. It was Österháziy’s “Irina,” the very composition Falsch had been playing before he fell asleep.
He gazed across the room at the piano. It was in shadow, but he discerned a gray, indistinct shape crouched in front of the keyboard. Suddenly, the music ceased and the crouching figure straightened up and turned around. The shape became more defined as that of a man, but not enough to be recognizable.
Falsch let out a gasp. The intruder rose from the piano bench and moved slowly toward him. In a panic now, Falsch lunged for his desk seeking the Nagant pistol he kept in his top drawer. He retrieved it and unlocked the safety, pointing it at the man who lumbered wordlessly toward him.
“Stand back,” Falsch shouted, “or I’ll shoot.”
The intruder ignored him and kept walking.
Falsch cocked the hammer and fired, but with no effect. The man didn’t even flinch. Falsch fired again and again, but the man kept coming. When the Nagant was empty, Falsch flung it at him. The pistol appeared to strike the man’s head, but it continued right through his body and landed at the foot of the piano. At the sight of this astonishing phenomenon, Falsch let out a guttural cry and fainted to the floor.
When he regained consciousness, it was morning. The fire had died down and the apartment was cold. Falsch looked around the room, not knowing if his frightening encounter with the intruder had been nothing more than a dream or a hallucination. But a glance at the piano told him that it had been all too real.
The Österháziy spinet had been upended and broken apart: its Queen Anne legs were ripped from the body; the sounding board was split out of the frame; the base-plate was shattered by six holes, a result of the bullets Falsch had fired at — and through — the apparition.
Falsch told no one of the incident. When pressed by his Paris contacts who wanted to bid for the piano, he responded that it had been destroyed in transport. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been time to have it insured, a mistake that cost him dearly. During the ensuing days, he scrambled to make good his debt to Loewenschild and his other financial backers, liquidating investments and calling in debt he had extended to other counterparties. In the end, when he tallied up his assets, he found that he was still solvent, but only barely so. Fortunately, by meeting his obligations so quickly, his credit standing remained impeccable.
On Sunday, he made his way to a school auditorium in Linz where the Bazaar was convening. Grimalkin was there, waiting for him.
“I heard of the unfortunate accident with the Österháziy spinet,” Grimalkin said. “I understand the piano movers dropped it down the stairs.”
“Is that what you think?”
Grimalkin looked down at the priceless and near priceless objects on his display table. He absently stroked the frame of a tiny oil painting and then looked back up at Falsch. He said, “No. I think you ignored Österháziy’s warning and played his piano. He wouldn’t have liked that.”
© 2003 David Evans Katz