THE MELODY OF SECRETS by Jeffrey Stepakoff
Published by Thomas Dunne Books,
Hardcover ISBN: 9781250001092, ebook ISBN: 9781250022714
Copyright (c) 2013 by Jeffrey Stepakoff
*** From the book jacket ***
Maria was barely eighteen as WWII was coming to its explosive end. A brilliant violinist, she tried to comfort herself with the Sibelius Concerto as American bombs rained down. James Cooper wasn’t much older. A roguish fighter pilot stationed in London, he was shot down during a daring night raid and sought shelter in Maria’s cottage.
Fifteen years later, in Huntsville, Alabama, Maria is married to a German rocket scientist who works for the burgeoning U.S. space program. Her life in the South is at peace, purposefully distanced from her past. Everything is as it should be–until James Cooper walks back into it.
Pulled from the desert airfield where he was testing planes no sane Air Force pilot would touch, and drinking a bit too much, Cooper is offered the chance to work for the government, and move himself to the front of the line for the astronaut program. He soon realizes that his job is to report not only on the rocket engines but also on the scientists developing them. Then Cooper learns secrets that could shatter Maria’s world…
OUTSKIRTS OF NORDHAUSEN, GERMANY,
LATE MARCH 1945
Maria sat in front of the mirror slowly buttoning up her light blue sleeveless linen dress when she heard the bombs falling in the distance. She paused for a moment, turned her head, listening as the explosions came closer, and then continued dressing. There was a time not too long ago when this sound would have sent her running, but not anymore. Though she was hardly eighteen years old and knew that the war would be over in a matter of weeks, inside, Maria felt dead already.
She thought about dashing out the door of her little cottage and sprinting through the forest to the old house and grabbing the children–her music students throughout the war–and running off with them in the night. But with the Russians coming in from the east, and the Americans from the south and west, where was there left for a German girl and half a dozen orphans to run?
The air-raid sirens in town wailed from afar. A pitcher of water rattled on her dressing table. Picking up a wide-tooth ivory comb, Maria ran it through her damp honey-blond hair. She could smell the lilac that had been in the bathwater.
“Who was this person looking back at her? She didn’t even recognize herself anymore. No bath in the world would ever wash away what she had seen.”
A nearby explosion rocked the cottage, causing Maria to jump. These bombing raids were getting closer every time now. Drawn by bright flashes of tracer light and the distinctive staccato popping sound of antiaircraft fire, Maria went to the windows. She pulled the lacy curtains away to see a sky filled with fire and smoke and what looked like a sea of aircraft, a few falling from formation in trails of orange flames but most moving relentlessly forward, dropping their fat bombs in steady cadence as they flew over.
“Boom!” Another percussive blast shook the ground, rattling the cottage windows. A plate fell from a cupboard in the kitchen, hit the floor, and shattered. Maria gasped. It was no longer just the fuel depots in town they were after. They knew about the camp, and the underground rocket factory, and the officer’s quarters in the houses all around the outskirts of town–she was in the target zone now.
There truly was nowhere left to run.
Barefoot, as though in a trance, Maria walked into the living area, reached into a recessed shelf, and removed a violin case and bow. She popped the latches on the sturdy old case, expertly removed the violin, thrust it atop her shoulder, pressed her face to the chin rest, and pulled the bow across the strings.
A beautiful melodious sound, steady and true, resonated throughout the room. Maria closed her eyes, shutting out the world, focusing intensely on the long soothing tone. Then with a quick breath she shot the bow upward hard across the strings and, her fingers on the other hand working along the neck–outside the bombs falling all around–Maria stood in the middle of the room, lithe and shapely in her thin A-line dress, and played her violin.
She played Sibelius, the Concerto in D minor, powerful and poignant and mournful. And as though she stood before an audience of ten thousand giving the final performance of her life, she played with absolute conviction and precision, the instrument’s pitch always perfect.
Back and forth, Maria pulled the bow across the strings in varied pace and angle, chin parallel to the floor, fingers coursing over the strings, as the bombs fell closer and louder–but she could no longer hear them. Everything she felt, everything she had seen over these last few years, it all came pouring out through the violin, the music speaking volumes more than any words ever could.
Her hair flying as she moved her head in the building rhythm of the concerto, a few snapped strands of the bow’s horse hair whipping around as well, tears began to pool in the lower lids of Maria’s big wide-set eyes and then to stream down her soft high cheeks, conjured not by fear of fire or jagged metal or demise but by all that had happened, all that she knew. The music brought it out, as it always did, and she was lost in it now, protected by it, enchanted, and carried away to some place safe by it. The world had gone mad and she was ready now for the end. Ready for death. In fact, she welcomed it.
The door of the cottage flew open.
Maria looked up from her dreamlike state and saw a man with a gun rush inside–a soldier, his face smudged with grease and soil, close-cut dark hair filled with leaves and small twigs, hands and forearms and neck bleeding from innumerable cuts. From a patch on his leather jacket, she could see that he was an American.
She yanked the bow rigidly, producing a discordant screech, and then stopped playing. Empty and spent, she just stared at him.
And he stared back. Then, in an instant, he ran his eyes all across the room, finally coming back to hers.
“Don’t scream,” he said, aiming his handgun directly at her chest.
Screaming had not occurred to her, for there was no one near to hear her. Dress fluttering against her skin as the wind blew in, she did start to think about fighting.
Without moving his gaze or gun, he reached behind his back and slammed the door shut.
“Are you alone?” he asked.
Violin hanging from one hand, bow from the other, she continued staring at him, speechless, as though he were some illusory creature.
Several bombs exploded off in the distance, the planes dropping their payload on the factory.
Wincing in pain, he took a determined step forward, extending the large-frame pistol even closer to her. “Are you alone?”
She could hear the volatility in his voice but still said nothing as her mind raced, studying him. Broad-shouldered and rock-hard fit, he looked like he was barely a year or two older than her, and she could tell from the bars on the shoulders of his jacket that he was an officer. On the front, above a patch with silver wings, COOPER was sewn in dark threading.
He had fallen from the sky.
“‘Sprechen Sie englisch?'” His accent was terrible but comprehensible.
Yet, still nothing from her.
He raised the gun and his voice. “Say something or I swear you’ll spend the rest of the three seconds of your life–”
“Yes,” she finally said with only a faint hint of her German accent, eyes never leaving his, jaw set, shoulders square. “I am alone.”
His gun pointed at her chest, violin and bow swaying from her limbs, as another distant explosion gently rocked the cottage, but still neither moved.
THE LAST OPTION
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA, 1957
“We have sixty seconds to launch, sir,” a nervous technician announced.
Air force colonel Mike Adams, a big man with an executive presence, nodded as he leaned forward on the control panel, looking out the thick plateglass window at the launch site below.
“Satellite beacon is active and operating,” another tech said, and the steady “beep, beep, beep” of a small satellite–the payload atop the slender rocket on the launch pad below–could be heard transmitting over speakers in the control room.
“What makes you boys think this one’s gonna fly?” Adams asked without bothering to look back at the half-dozen men in the small room. With his deep, low voice, at once folksy but commanding, Adams struck them as someone who in another life might have run a Nebraska cattle operation.
“My team has tested and retested every piece of hardware on that rocket,” a navy lieutenant said.
“And that’s ‘in addition’ to the safeguards provided by each and every subcontractor,” a white-coated scientist added.
Colonel Adams scratched his belly, pressing it up against the control panel, eliciting a glance from the navy lieutenant.
It was clear that the lieutenant didn’t like his operation’s being second-guessed by some Pentagon administrator, no matter how superior, and he wasn’t going to make a secret of it–this project warranted Washington’s full support. “We have absolute confidence in the Vanguard rocket, Colonel.”
“You had ‘absolute confidence’ the last two times you tried to launch her,” Adams said, finally turning to the men.
“Did we hit a few snags?” the scientist asked. “Sure. And we found them and fixed them.”
“Fifteen seconds!” a tech called out.
“Colonel Adams, that rocket down there is the sum of America’s best minds,” the navy lieutenant said, his tone deftly straddling reassurance and rebuke. “Have some faith, sir.”
“Beep, beep, beep,” the satellite’s transmission reverberated throughout the room. It was a sound filled with the promise of technology, the expense of tens of millions of dollars in funding, the dreams of a nation, and the security of a way of life.
“I have plenty of faith.” Adams looked back down at the slender Navy Vanguard TV3 rocket, seventy-two feet tall, steam rising from beneath her as the launch sequence continued. “It’s the people of this country that don’t. They don’t care about your snags and fixes. They just want to know why the Russians beat America into space. They want to know why they have a Soviet satellite flying over their heads right now when ‘America’s best minds’ can’t seem to throw a grapefruit over a barn, let alone get our own satellite up there. Gentlemen, this bird had better fly.”
“Five, four, three, two, booster is ignited, and–liftoff! We have a liftoff! Vanguard TV3 is a go!”
All the men leaned toward the glass window, watching with rapt attention, the stakes of this mission apparent on their faces.
All across America, people watched the launch on their television sets.
In Sacramento, a family of five gathered in their living room eating breakfast on standing metal trays, gripped by the images of the launch on their bulky black-and-white set.
In Manhattan, a young man threw open the front door of his apartment, tossed his hat, and ran into the kitchen to join his pretty wife, an infant in her arms. Without turning her face from the television, she reached out and took his hand.
In Wichita, a farmer in dusty coveralls stood on his front porch and peered in through a wide-open window at the television set in his living room, his family congregated around it. He wiped his brow, a look of wonder on his face.
On an unfurling ball of golden flame, fueled by just the right mix of liquid oxygen and ethyl alcohol, the rocket began to defy gravity and rise, slowly, gracefully, like a ballerina going en pointe. It was a thing of grand beauty to behold.
In the control room, the glass window vibrating with the steady rumbling of the ascending rocket, several of the men began to applaud. A couple cheered.
About four feet over the launch pad, the pillow of roaring fire and smoke expanding underneath it, the rocket hung in midair, levitating, and then abruptly lost thrust, dropping back down to the concrete launch pad, fuel tanks rupturing and bursting, causing the entire rocket to explode and quickly burn up in its own flames.
Propelled out of their stupor by the oncoming debris, the men quickly ducked down as shrapnel flew up toward the control room window. A toaster-sized chunk of blackened rocket engine slammed into the glass, cracking it from top to bottom, leaving a web of wavelike lines in its wake.
Then there was silence, except for the “beep, beep, beep.”
Tentatively, the men rose, looked out the damaged window, and saw lying below in a nearby patch of tall grass, the small aluminum sphere that was supposed to be in the heavens above them. Thrown from the top of the rocket, it was dented and charred but still transmitting what now seemed a wretched earthbound sound.
“Beep, beep, beep.” It was mocking them.
Stunned, the men silently watched the widening trail of black smoke float out over the Atlantic in the distance.
Finally, Adams picked up a phone. “Get me the executive officer at Redstone.”
“You’re going to the army?” The navy lieutenant asked.
“We’re done here.”
The scientists and technicians immediately exchanged worried looks. No one wanting to be the first to object–it was common knowledge among them that former enemies were on staff at the highly classified Redstone army base.
“Sir–” The navy lieutenant raised his voice. “You can’t put the Germans on this.”
“I don’t have any other options.” Adams turned away, phone to his ear, looking down through the shattered glass at the disaster below.
Pushing aside the rolling chair separating their bodies, the navy lieutenant got in his face. “Colonel, with all due respect–and interdepartmental politics entirely aside–this is a matter of national security. The highest kind. ‘You can’t put the Germans on this.'”
Adams met his eyes and held them until it was very clear who had the power in this room. “Actually, Lieutenant, I can.”
THE NEXT DAY
>From the air, there was cotton, field after field of it, rolling like whitecaps gently breaking on an endless sea. As one came up from the south, as the big cargo planes did on their way in from the cape in Florida, over the pristine Tennessee River, whose snaking tributaries fed the rich ruddy soil in the fields, Redstone Arsenal and the army’s affiliated airbase sprawled over the entire southwestern quadrant of Huntsville–tens of thousands of acres of fresh gray concrete and low-lying government installations, smack dab in the middle of the cotton sea. Brown military vehicles buzzed back and forth along the skinny two-lanes between the fields to the west of town.
And to the east, past the sooty old textile mills and dry-goods ware houses and the small downtown encircling the yellow brick court house, just beyond the historic districts–Twickenham and Old Town and Five Points, with their lovingly maintained antebellum homes–spreading out into the horse shoed base of Monte Sano, a new suburban neighborhood was being rapidly built.
“Welcome to Blossomwood” read the hand-carved sign on one of the red brick posts at the entrance to the community. A tableau of a merry family of openmouthed hummingbirds was painted vividly on the sign.
The main street, paralleled by milky-white sidewalks, wound along carefully planned one-acre tracts, each one covered with spotless green turf, and multihued annuals and azaleas, and pines young and old. Set generously back from the street, each lot contained a brand-new one-story ranch-style house, some built as recently as within the year–a response to the steady rise in military personnel.
With their long, low roofs, wide, overhanging eaves, oversized windows with shutters, and simple exterior trim, these rambling red brick ranchers were sleek and restrained in design, evoking a confident charm, a certain elegance in their utility. It was an aesthetic that sparked first in California after the war and had now caught on, with minor regional refinements, throughout the new suburbs springing up in the Deep South. On the streets of Blossomwood, past the carefree children playing on expansive driveways, the sound of a dog barking brightly, the scents of sawdust and sod, there was a pervasive rightness to how things were–a living, breathing validation of a way of life where man was free not only to dream but to pursue his full potential.
Branching off the main street in the subdivision, down Monterrey Drive, to the very end of a cul-de-sac, Sierra Circle, workers installed several root-balled dogwoods in the front yard of a particularly charming new brick ranch home.
Penny Tucker, a full-bosomed woman in a satin pencil dress mercilessly cinched at the waist, sashayed past the landscape workers–their heads turning in unison. Pointy-toed heels click-clacking away, she floated past a grouping of azalea bushes still in containers, up the front steps, across the deep front porch, and rang the doorbell.
Maria Reinhardt opened the door, a tray of chocolate-covered Rice Krispies Treats in her hands. The waifish teen who had played that violin in the cottage in Germany twelve years ago was now a beautiful refined woman in her late twenties. “Penny! Oh good, you’re just in time.”
Penny stepped inside.
“Tell me,” Maria said, her German accent barely detectable. “Too much chocolate?”
“Honey, there is no such thing as too much chocolate,” Penny said with her languorous Lower Alabama drawl, picking out a perfectly cut square and popping it into her mouth. Chewing, Penny vocalized her plea sure, emphasizing her point.
Maria closed the door to her house and they walked through the foyer, passing the open living room to the left, stopping at the dining room on the right.
“I have proper strudel and Black Forest cake,” Maria said. “But Peter is coming home from boarding school today and he loves these Krispies things.” She put the tray on the table next to a cake on a glass stand.
“Your kid’s got good taste.”
“Who would think to cook breakfast cereal with marshmallows and butter?”
“American ingenuity at its finest.” Penny spied a pitcher of martinis and began to pour herself one.
Maria popped a square into her mouth, closing her big eyes with plea sure as she chewed. “I love America.”
Sipping from the martini glass in her hand, Penny took in the sight of her friend standing before the long, elegant living-room table, covered with bowls and dishes and platters of pretty little finger sandwiches and frosted baked confections. It was a scene straight out of a ladies’ magazine.
In her full-skirted sleeveless tea dress, Maria was fine-boned and feminine. Blond hair perfectly curled and set, soft-toned matching lipstick and nails, her creamy skin pastel and muted, she moved like a dancer Renoir might have conjured.
Maria stepped back, surveying the table, her expression dropping when she noticed a burned-out lightbulb in the fixture above the table. She shook her head and went to a cabinet.
“I had a leaky kitchen faucet for three weeks,” Penny said. “I asked Jimmy to fix it every day, and every day it just dripped and dripped. One day he came home from the base after a long day of test piloting looking for his supper. But all he found in the kitchen was a monkey wrench. I had a steak at the officers’ club that night and when I came home my sink was fixed.” Penny sucked a gin-soaked olive off a toothpick.
Maria strode back to the table, chin high, a lightbulb in her raised hand. Even doing the most mundane tasks, Maria Reinhardt was poised as a princess. Indeed, if Penny was Marilyn Monroe, Maria was Grace Kelly.
“Oh, honey, you can’t get to that right now,” Penny said, her palm out toward the food-covered table. “Just give Hans a kick when he comes home later. He designs rockets for the army. I’m confident he can change a lightbulb in his own house.”
“Yes, well, I birthed a baby. After that, I am confident I can do anything.” Resolve on her face, Maria kicked off her midheight pumps and, bulb in hand, stepped up onto a chair.
“I’m telling you,” Penny went on. “You are too sweet. Men are like horses. You have to know when to feed ’em and know when to kick ’em. Only way you’ll ever get ’em to jump.”
“I need jumping done right now.” Maria hopped up onto the dining room table.
“Oh, watch the cake, dear!” As though she were watching a game show on television, Penny just leaned against the wall, sipping her martini, entirely amused at the spectacle. This was definitely not something you’d see in the “Ladies’ Home Journal”.
In nylon-stockinged feet, Maria tiptoed across the slippery polished table, stepping over and around all the trays and bowls of food. She reached up high to the space-age-themed fixture above her head. A gleaming bronze base from which sixteen poles of varying lengths protruded, each holding a bulb at the end, it called to mind the structure of an atom. Stretching precariously, using her fingertips, Maria removed the burned-out bulb, replacing it with the new one.
“Bravo!” Penny clapped.
“Thank you for your support,” Maria said with a grin as she gingerly stepped over the food. Feet arched, toes pointed, holding her skirt just above the frosted cakes, she made her way to the edge of the table and, old bulb in her elongated hand, leapt to the floor, landing like a ballerina in a third-position curtsy.
The doorbell rang.
“‘Now’ we are ready for tea,” Maria said, stepping into her shoes, smoothing down her skirt, and walking with the calm of a thoroughly prepared hostess to the door.
“‘Guten Tag, mein lieber Freund,'” said Sabine Janssen when Maria opened the door.
“Good afternoon to you too, Sabine.”
Sabine smiled, a bit sheepishly, as she stepped in and kissed Maria on the cheek. Both women knew the only way they would assimilate and truly make Alabama their home was to speak English. But Sabine, her crystal blue eyes darting and nervous, had a much harder time with this than Maria.
Before Maria closed the door, another woman, conservatively dressed, her helmet of dark hair sprayed immobile, white patent leather purse swinging madly from one hand, a Tupperware container balanced in the other, flew past the landscape workers and ran up the steps to the door.
“Catastrophe!” Carolyn Propst exclaimed, easing right by Maria and Sabine and striding into the house as if it were her own. She threw the purse like a hand grenade onto a sectional sofa in the living room and dropped the Tupperware down on a coffee table with a thud.
“What happened?” Sabine asked, alarm in her guttural voice, stepping over to join Carolyn.
“We have a complete catastrophe on our hands is what happened!”
Maria closed the door and went to the open living room, where Penny had placed herself on the sofa, a fresh martini in hand. On the walls behind her were framed petit point works, finely embroidered landscapes that Maria had recently completed to try to make the new house feel like a home.
“What’s the matter, honey?” Penny asked, drawing out her drawl as though trying to settle things down.
“What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” Carolyn stood before the women, nervously laughing at the scope of the crisis. “The hotel doesn’t have chairs for tonight.”
“What are you talking about?” Sabine asked, sitting down. When Sabine focused on expressing herself in English, she tended to speak concisely and seriously.
“I am talking about two hundred and sixty-five people standing.” Carolyn plopped down on the sofa, every part of her slumping like a rag doll, except her bulletproof hair.
“For every problem, there is a solution,” Maria finally said, hands resting on the back of a sofa. “What exactly happened to their ballroom chairs?” Unlike Sabine, Maria spoke eloquently, which only accentuated her composure.
“Apparently, they sent them to a church in East Memphis–”
“What?” Hands raised, Sabine cut her off. “The chairs for our event are in Tennessee?”
“No, the chairs for our event are in Oswego.”
“Os-what-o?” Penny popped open Carolyn’s Tupperware, curious to see what her friend had brought.
“Oswego, New York.” Carolyn became even more exasperated as Penny started nibbling on a cherry shortbread cookie.
“Tennessee, New York. Sabine looked back and forth between the two women. “Why would the hotel send their ballroom chairs ‘anywhere?'”
“Because they had to make room for the ‘new’ chairs, the ones that were not on the truck with the new tables that arrived today because apparently the new chairs are still on the shipping dock–”
“In Os-way-go.” Penny said, nodding her head in understanding.
“Which is most definitely not anywhere near Huntsville, Alabama!” Carolyn said.
“The event is in four hours.” Sabine looked at her slim Swiss wristwatch.
“Does the hotel have a plan?” Maria asked.
“Standing buffet. That’s their plan.”
“Well, that’ll work,” Penny said.
“With prime rib?” Carolyn’s voice cracked. “Twenty-four-ounce cuts of rare prime rib? How do you hold a plate with one hand and cut your two-pound slab of beef with the other?”
The women thought in unison, and what they envisioned wasn’t a pretty picture.
On the hall table, under a polished chrome-framed mirror, Maria picked up a phone next to a sizable stack of unopened mail and dialed.
“I have to confess, sugar,” Penny said close to Carolyn. “I thought you were being a teensy bit, you know, theatrical, and even though this might not be a full-on catastrophe it really could get rather messy.” Penny picked a dried cherry off the cookie and plunked it in her mouth. “I’ll tell you ‘my’ plan.”
“Oh, do tell.” Carolyn leaned back. This was going to be good.
“We get more liquor.”
“I believe we have sufficient quantities ordered,” Sabine said.
“Well, what ever the order, we double it, for starters.”
“That’s your plan?” Carolyn asked, rubbing her forehead.
“That’s my plan.”
“Major Sullivan, please,” Maria said into the phone. “In base operations.” Wrapping the rolled cord from the handset around her long, slender index finger, Maria simply tuned out the ongoing situation in her living room.
Carolyn just kept talking. “In four hours the entire arts-supporting community of Huntsville is going to be wondering why they paid fifty dollars a plate for a sit-down dinner they have to eat standing up, and your plan is to get ’em smashed?”
“Works every time,” Penny said, reflecting on such occasions. “Well, mostly.”
“Catastrophe!” Carolyn said.
“Besides, I don’t hear any other suggestions, so we might as well make this heavy-hauling walking ‘n’ talking buffet affair as fun as possible.”
“Major Sullivan, this is Maria Reinhardt.” Her voice was cool, even serene. “Hans is fine, thank you so much for asking, Major. I have a problem with which I wonder if you might be able to assist me. As you may know, many of the rocket scientists on your team, as well as some of their wives, were trained in classical music when we were children in Germany, and many of us have formed a symphony orchestra here in Huntsville. Yes, the HSO. Well, the new Huntsville Symphony Orchestra board of trustees…”
Eyes forced wide, Maria gazed at Carolyn and Penny, the co-presidents of the HSO board, who, along with Sabine, were finally silent, fixated entirely on Maria.
Leaning on a sofa table, phone pressed comfortably to an ear, Maria smoothed her bouncy-set blond hair and continued. “They are hosting a fund-raiser to night for the HSO at the Russel Erskine Hotel downtown–that is right, General Medaris will be there with Faye–and we seem to be missing some chairs.”
Maria ran her tongue over her lustrous teeth, making sure they were entirely free of any errant lipstick.
Across the room, Penny gave Maria a thumbs-up, clearly impressed with her ingenuity and nerve.
“Well, while the board and I were racking our brains to try to solve this embarrassing predicament,” Maria continued, “I remembered all those lovely padded white chairs that were arranged so neatly on the lawn at Redstone last month when Secretary Wilson spoke at the opening of the new missile command facility.”
Her plan clear now, Maria exchanged upbeat smiles with the other women, her voice growing ever more confident as each woman sent nods of approval her way.
“Two hundred and sixty-five.” Maria looked quite pleased with what she was hearing. “You are so kind, Major. I know the scientists will appreciate it, as will the entire town. And I will be sure to let the general know how helpful and supportive you were.”
Maria hung up and turned to her friends. “The chairs are being deployed.”
“Maria Reinhardt, I swear, you are cool as a cucumber in the fridge!” Penny exclaimed.
Carolyn rose, visibly embarrassed at how easily Maria had solved her “catastrophe”. “I’ll call the hotel and let them know that–”
“He is taking care of it all.” Maria motioned for her to sit as she went to the dining room table, ferrying teacups on saucers and the martini pitcher to the coffee table. “If they can split an atom and send a missile across the ocean, they can get some chairs to a local hotel. And considering what our husbands do for them, it is the least they can do for us.”
“You are so right about ‘that,'” Carolyn said, leaning back on the sofa. “They have Will flying virtually every day. It used to be just transport, but now he’s test-piloting these new jets with rocket-assisted takeoff–”