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Authors: Carla Neggers

Tags: #Contemporary Romantic Suspense

The Uneven Score

BOOK: The Uneven Score
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The Uneven Score


Carla Neggers




The telephone rang during Whitney’s second hour of practicing études for the French horn. It was March in Schenectady, a dull and dreary time of year. The sap was running, the snow was melting, and Whitney was ensconced on a straight-backed chair in the living room of her little house on the Mohawk River. Her cat, Wolfgang, was stretched out in front of the stone fireplace, the glow of the flames flickering on his orange fur. His ears twitched when the ring of the telephone clashed with the high B-flat Whitney was playing.

“I’m not out of tune,” she said, getting up, “the phone is.” Most musicians Whitney knew used answering machines during their practice hours, but she treasured interruptions, often finding a chat with a friend or bill collector refreshing. Especially when practicing études, she thought, especially during March, when life was almost unbearably quiet. She tucked her horn under her arm, picked up the phone, and said hello.

“Whitney,” a vaguely familiar voice said, “this is Victoria.”

“Victoria?” Whitney frowned thoughtfully. There was a Victoria in the flute section of the Mohawk Valley Community Orchestra, of which Whitney was the conductor, but she was only eighteen. This Victoria sounded older and irrepressibly self-confident and—no, Whitney thought, it couldn’t be!

“Is Harry there?” Victoria demanded. “The fink. Has he called?”

Whitney almost dropped her horn. “Victoria Paderevsky!”

“Yes, of course.”

Victoria Paderevsky was the music director of the newly formed Central Florida Symphony Orchestra and one of the most controversial and brilliant conductors in the world. She was controversial because she was a woman in a man’s profession, singularly unattractive, egotistical, and notoriously tyrannical. Her view of her position harked back to the days of Serge Koussevitzky and Arturo Toscanini, when a conductor was lord and master of his musicians, free to be tolerant or intolerant, however he saw fit.

But she was also undeniably brilliant. At age thirty-eight she had an immense repertory of orchestral works, possessed a rare and gifted musical voice, and had led some of the best orchestras in the world during her years as a freelance conductor. Although early in her career she had served as an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic, she had never had a major podium of her own. The offers had just started to come in, but Victoria Paderevsky had decided to accept an offer from a group in Orlando, Florida, to start her own orchestra. Because she had conducted all over the world, she knew thousands of musicians—and knew exactly which ones she wanted. And with blinding speed and no discernible concern for anyone she might alienate, she’d gone after them, and gotten them.

Now, with the CFSO’s premiere less than two weeks away, the music world was watching and waiting for the emergence of a major orchestra—or the downfall of Victoria Paderevsky. Whitney didn’t envy her position: The pressures had to be enormous.

She hadn’t seen Paddie, as she was known behind her back, in eight years. But eight years ago, during Paddie’s tenure at the New York Philharmonic, they had been friends—as much as anyone could be friends with Victoria Paderevsky.

“What a surprise,” Whitney said, “but what’s this about Harry?”

Paddie huffed. “He’s an imbecile, an ingrate. I take it he’s not there?”

“No, I haven’t heard from him since—I don’t know—last week sometime. He calls every week or so. Why?”

Harry Stagliatti was Whitney’s teacher and mentor, and the CFSO’s principal horn. Whitney, who fancied she knew him better than anyone else, was still mystified at how Paddie had lured Harry to Florida from his farm in the Adirondacks and a premature retirement. He hadn’t bothered to explain, but, as he had packed his bags, had merely said, “I want to see if Florida and Dr. Paderevsky are both as godawful as I remember.” Like Paddie, Harry was not known for his charm.

“Humph,” Paddie said. “Then perhaps he does mean to resign, the scoundrel.”

Not knowing what to think; Whitney licked, her lips, slightly numb from practicing, and reminded herself that Paddie was also known for her fine-tuned sense of the dramatic. “Victoria, I’m not following you. Are you saying Harry has quit the CFSO?”

“So it would seem,” Paddie said tightly.

“But he wouldn’t walk out this close to opening night! Where is he? Has he said anything—”

“He left me a letter saying he was going to be away for a couple of days and would miss rehearsal.”

“Oh.” Whitney relaxed. In Paddie’s book, a musician who purposely missed a rehearsal might just as well have chopped off one of her toes. Whitney had always thought tyrannical conductors were martyrs at heart. “Did he say why?”

“No, but I thought you might know.”

“I’m sorry, Victoria, but I don’t. Something must have come up. He’ll be back, I’m sure.”

“Not to my orchestra he won’t! I will fire him.”

“Oh, Victoria.” Whitney shook her head, slipping back into the relationship she and Paddie had cultivated eight years ago. Paddie had always tolerated a certain amount of argument—and honesty—from her young friend the horn player. Whitney was never sure why, but thought perhaps it had something to do with the nonjudgmental stance she took toward the controversial conductor. Somehow Whitney’s objectivity—it couldn’t be called understanding—penetrated Paddie’s otherwise thick hide, and something had erupted between them. It wasn’t a rapport, and certainly not a close friendship. A tolerance, Whitney thought. An acceptance. She sighed and went on, “You’re not going to fire your principal horn this close to your world premiere—and certainly not Harry Stagliatti. He’s probably the greatest hornist playing today, and you know it.”

“He’s missed two and a half days of rehearsal.”

“So? That’s no reason to fire him. He knows those parts upside down and sideways.”

Paddie refused to bend. “And what happens if he doesn’t come back?  We’ll have no one to play principal horn.”

Whitney could smell a trap. “He’ll be back, Victoria. He said so in the letter, didn’t he?”


“Then believe it.”

There was a short, ominous silence. Then Paddie said in an unusually hushed voice, “I wish I could.”

The fire crackled, and Wolfgang yawned. Whitney shivered. It’s just the weather, she told herself, and too many years living alone…or was there something creepy and foreboding about Paddie’s tone? No, she thought, Paddie was just being dramatics Harry had probably needed a break from what he regularly referred to as “that egotistical tyrant” and had taken a few days off. Who could blame him? But he was also a professional; he would return.

“Whitney,” the conductor went on, didactic and under control once again, “you must come to Florida.”


“I’ve arranged for you to take the eleven-thirty flight out of New York tomorrow morning. We’ll pay your fare, of course.”

“Victoria, please, you know I can’t—”

“Only you can do Till the way Harry does.”

Paddie referred to Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, which featured a difficult but coveted horn solo and was the opening piece of the CFSO’s world premiere. “That’s not the point, Victoria,” Whitney said lamely. “You can’t fire Harry and put me in his place: He’s my teacher. Imagine what that would do to our relationship.”

“But if he doesn’t come back, I will need a principal horn—one who can do for this orchestra what Harry could, the cretin. Whitney, you must come.”

The presumption of Paddie’s tone grated. “I have other commitments.”

“I’m only asking for three weeks. Your little orchestra meets once a week. You will miss three rehearsals—no problem. And your wind quintet and brass ensemble don’t perform again until late in April. You can come, Whitney. You must.”

Leave it to Paddie to do her homework, Whitney thought, but had to acknowledge an unsettling desperation in her words. Victoria Paderevsky was a high-strung woman in a vulnerable position, and Harry Stagliatti’s walkout, temporary or not, was a challenge to her authority and a threat to her concentration. It was also, Whitney thought, an incredibly insensitive act on Harry’s part. Intensely loyal as she was to him, she knew his faults better than most. And Whitney had been rooting for Paddie for years. They were both women in a man’s profession, but, above all, they were musicians. If Whitney could calm Paddie down now by agreeing to fill in for Harry, she owed it to herself and her art at least to try. Chances are, she thought, Harry’ll be back by the time I land in Orlando and we can lambaste him together, and I can have an all-expenses-paid weekend in the sun.

“What about Harry?” Whitney asked, not willing to give in too easily. “Are you going to fire him?”

She could almost see the conductor’s sly smile. “It depends on who plays Till better.”

“All right, I’ll come—but I won’t replace Harry. When he returns, he gets his seat back and I quit, regardless of what you want to do. Fair enough?”

“Fair enough.”

“And, Victoria?”


“Harry is all right isn’t be?”

“I don’t know, Whitney.”

Dramatics, Whitney thought. “Did you two fight or something?”

“No more so than usual.”

“He didn’t say why he was leaving?”

“But he said he would be back?”


Whitney sighed. “Victoria, are you telling me everything? You’re sure there isn’t something more to this?”

“Just be on that plane tomorrow, Whitney. If Harry hasn’t returned by then, perhaps we can come up with a way of finding him.”

“Perhaps,” Whitney said, and hung up.


Chapter One


The slush and grayness of March in upstate New York had been replaced by a March so green and beautiful Whitney knew she should have been meandering through Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando all agog. Instead she was walking with slow but purposeful strides, her horn tucked under one arm, her eyes peering up at a glass high-rise across the street. On the twenty-first floor was the office of the vice president of Graham Citrus, Inc. His name was Daniel Graham, and besides being vice president of a large national citrus corporation and a member of a powerful citrus family, he was chairman of the board of directors of the Central Florida Symphony Orchestra.

And, more to the point, he was the man Victoria Paderevsky suspected had kidnapped Harry Stagliatti.

Yes, Whitney thought wearily, kidnapped. Harry’s “couple of days” had now turned into four days, and Paddie had greeted Whitney at the airport with tales of a kidnapped hornist and her dastardly chairman of the board and the Machiavellian politics of her orchestra. Sensing the conductor’s growing desperation and paranoia, Whitney had ushered her off to an airport bar and insisted Paddie explain.

“Yesterday you were fairly reasonable,” Whitney said, “but today you sound like a raving maniac. What happened?”

Paddie had pursed her lips stubbornly. “I no longer believe Harry left this orchestra of his own free will. I believe he was kidnapped.”


“To drive me crazy.”

Whitney thought it characteristically egotistical of Paddie to think she was at the center of the misfortunes of one of her musicians, but didn’t say so. “All right. First, why would anyone think kidnapping Harry would drive you crazy?”

“Not anyone. Only the right person would know that a defection by Harry Stagliatti would upset me more than a defection by any other member of my orchestra. My horn section is my weakest, and yet I have dared to feature it in my opening program. With Harry in first chair, I have every confidence that my gamble will pay off. Without Harry—I don’t know.’’

“And not knowing where Harry is or what he’s up to would definitely rock you this close to the premiere. All right, fair enough. I would think someone would try several more standard ways of driving you crazy before resorting to kidnapping French horn players, but—”

“They have been tried,” Paddie had said in a near-mumble.

“What? Victoria—”

“I have not wanted to tell you this, Whitney, but I see now that I must confide in someone. Whitney, Harry’s disappearance is part of an ongoing plot to drive me from my podium—to make it look as though I cannot handle the pressures of my position. Even before he left, there were episodes. Threatening phone calls—”

“Like what?”

“The usual—leave Florida or pay the consequences, that sort of thing. I tried to ignore them as pranks spawned by jealousy. One morning there was soap in my coffee—or maybe poison, I don’t know. I spit it out.”

“Did you bring a sample to the police to be tested?”

“No, of course not. I was not injured, and the publicity would only hurt my orchestra. And what if it had only been soap? Who would believe that I had not put it there myself to garner attention? No, I would not risk the police. I still will not. There have been other incidents—a score with the wrong cover, which made me look foolish before my musicians; scores that were hidden so I would seem absentminded to my orchestra and be forced to conduct from memory. And at night at the cottage I have rented there have been noises, lights— Someone is watching me, I’m sure.” Paddie looked at Whitney with her alert, beady little eyes. “Even now, telling you these things, I can see how crazy I must sound.”

BOOK: The Uneven Score
9.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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