The address Malcolm gave me on Jay Street turned out to be a light industrial building not unlike its Dumbo neighbors. It took up one square block, a squat hulk obstructing the water view. The door was locked. Ringing the bell did nothing, so I had to wait until a couple came along. Offering a smile, I followed them inside.
The lobby smelled of wood, linseed oil, and plaster dust. According to the roster, Star Newcomb occupied space on the top floor. Soon I was juddering up the freight elevator, wondering if the contraption would make it all the way. At this hour I didn’t expect to find the artist in his studio, but I thought I’d be busy tomorrow so I needed to try. And you never know, I might surprise him and find Whiskey tied to a chair while a madman painted her likeness. Besides, if I kept moving, I wouldn’t have to think about Denny. “Denny,” I said aloud, as I stepped off onto Star Newcomb’s floor and watched the doors slide shut. My heart did its lurching thing again, this time getting stuck in my throat.
As I walked down the hall, looking at the numbers over the doors, I found it hard to breathe and had to stop next to two large windows. Reaching up for the sill, I felt like Alice in the shrinking scene. I stood on tiptoe to catch the view of Manhattan across the East River with the lady in the distance. It was calming, magnificent, the sky behind her, black with only a few pinpricks of light, the horizon over New Jersey shimmering red and gold with the last rays of the sun.
I turned into another passage, my footfalls echoing around me. It was long and smelled of plaster and some sort of fixing agent. Anyway, if I were a junky I could get high on its whiffs. After all, I reminded myself, I was inside a commercial building. It had different sounds and smells, high ceilings, painted concrete walls and ungiving tile over cement floors, steel-reinforced glass for window panes. I stopped and listened. Of all things, I heard piano music coming from a studio a few feet away. The door was ajar, so I peeked inside.
At my intrusion, a small man sporting a goatee and wearing a beret looked up but didn’t stop his playing. I listened, the music soft, elegiac, matching my mood at the end of a fruitless day. I was miles from figuring out what had happened to Whiskey and with Denny storming out of my life, my world at the moment was bleak.
I stepped inside. Scattered between two massive skylights, a few incandescents were suspended from the ceiling, one slightly to the left of the man’s head, illuminating him like a baby spot. Floor to ceiling windows took up one wall, and the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges arched their spans into the night sky. Pianos were all over the place, uprights and grands, stained wood, mostly, but a few painted; some falling apart, others listing to one side or leaning into each other. Benches and stools and chairs were scattered around. Soundboards braced themselves against the far wall. And there dust covered everything, even the cobwebs. He met my nod with a smile and a wink so I stepped inside.
“My gran used to play the piano.”
His fingers hesitated for a second before resuming their soft playing.
You’re a pianist?” I asked.
“I stumble through.” He introduced himself as Shlomo Morgenthau, the piano man. “Like a tailor mends an old suit, I’ll fix your grandmother’s piano, no matter the shape, the size, the degradation. It will make beautiful music again.”
I gulped down a lump, listened as a train rumbled its way across the Manhattan Bridge. “I sold it.”
He lifted his shoulders. “You’re young.”
I pushed down a new wave of sadness, mesmerized by the notes.
“I was born to the piano, you know, like my father and his father before him. But the war changed all that.”
He didn’t stop his playing, but kept up the banter. I watched the reflection of his hands on the piano’s fall board. That’s when I noticed a tattoo of some sort on his right forearm. “Yes, I repair pianos, and I play for my own amusement.”
“What’s it called?”
“No, the music you’re playing.”
“I play the same piece every night for my wife. Chopin, one of his nocturnes, Number 1 in B-Flat Minor, Opus 9. Gentler than most composers. For instance, Brahms.”
“I know. Gran used to play him when she felt like crashing the chords.”
“I only play Brahms when I want to understand the chaos of the world.”
I looked around expecting to see an old woman seated on a rickety stool listening to the music.
He smiled. “You won’t see her, but my Elsa’s here.”
I knew better than to make a remark, so I asked him to excuse my interruption, but I wondered if he knew the artist, Star Newcomb.
His eyes shot downward and rested his hands on his knees. Leaning toward the keys as if he could protect them, he said, “I don’t know him, not really. Who can know such a man as that? But turn right at the end of this hall and walk all the way down. His studio’s the last one. I don’t expect you’ll find him. Most evenings, he’s not there.”
I flashed him my ID, told him I was investigating the disappearance of a woman and Star Newcomb might know something about her. “Her name is Whiskey Parnell.”
He tried to hide the look on his face. “Star Newcomb has many women friends.”
I described her, turned on my iPhone screen which kept flickering while I showed him the picture of Whiskey. He stared at it a few minutes. “I might have seen her, but I couldn’t be certain. My memory, you know.”
I didn’t think so.
Photo: A view in Dumbo of the Manhattan Bridge during construction, June 1905. Public Domain.