Past and present collide when an Alzheimer’s patient’s fragile memory holds the key to solving mysteries dating back to World War II—including a long lost secret love affair.
Music professor Gus LeGarde is just doing a favor for a friend when he agrees to play piano for church services at a local nursing home. He doesn’t expect to be drawn into a new friendship with an elderly Alzheimer’s patient dubbed “the music man” or to stumble across a decades-old mystery locked inside the man’s mind.
Octogenarian Kip Sterling doesn’t know his own name—but he speaks Gus’s language, spouting jazz terms like “cadence” and “interlude” and “riff.” He’s also obsessed with “his Bella,” but nobody knows who she is.
When Kip is given a new drug called Memorphyl, he starts to remember bits and pieces of his life. Gus learns Bella was Kip’s first and only love, but their relationship was shrouded in scandal. Intrigued, Gus agrees to help search for her. Could she still be alive?
Horrified when the miracle drug suddenly stops working and patients begin to backslide, Gus panics. Can he help Kip find his beloved Bella before his newfound memories disappear?
I strolled along Main Street with Siegfried, my best friend and brother-in-law, unable to shake the song repeating in my head. I’d played it for my Opera 101 class yesterday at school, and since then, kept hearing Marcelo Alvarez singing “Che gelida manina,” from La Boheme. Because Camille and I had seen him perform in this role last fall in New York City, it made me long for Lincoln Center, or at least a really good hot pastrami sandwich from a decent deli.
Why I thought of food at that particular moment was a mystery, because we’d just finished a big breakfast of scrambled eggs, home fries, and bacon at Clara’s Diner. I shrugged and let the warm spring air caress my face and bare arms. The sun felt good after the lingering cold of March. I reveled in the feeling of freedom, happy to have no appointments or chores looming in the near future, and looking forward to a leisurely stop in the village bookstore.
A warm breeze teased across the Genesee Valley, filling me with a curious sense of exhilaration. Just past the bagel shop, from the top of the ridge where our historic village of Conaroga, New York perched, I stopped for a minute to enjoy the view. Rolling hills swelled in the distance, coated green with winter wheat.
I wanted to stay put and soak it all in, but Siegfried was rapidly disappearing into the crowded street. With his blond ponytail swaying behind him, his long legs ate up the ground.
I hurried after him. “Hey, buddy. What’s going on?” I wasn’t sure why our trip to the bookstore warranted such an effort.
He frowned, walking faster. “Ja.”
What kind of an answer was that? Had he even heard me? “Sig? You okay?”
I loped for a few paces and caught up with him. Rushing along the sidewalk in front of Victorian homes with deep porches and brightly-colored gables, we finally reached the commercial part of the village, jogging side by side past quaint shop windows offering flowers, travel dreams, gourmet pizza, and works of art.
A bus belched smoke and rumbled past us, its gears grinding. The advertisement on its broad side read, “Got Milk?” Beneath the text, a smiling actress wore a milk mustache.
I glanced down at my black tee shirt. The slogan, “Got Opera?” had produced a few confused grins from customers at the diner, where Siegfried and I enjoyed our breakfast.
“Hey, what’s the hurry, big fella?”
Siegfried didn’t answer.
I wasn’t sure why he seemed so distracted, but I responded when he motioned for me to quicken my pace because over the years, I’d learned to trust his sixth sense and recognized something in his expression that spelled danger.
We crossed the street, almost at a run now. Siegfried frowned at something on the other side of the road. I followed his line of sight and realized he wasn’t headed for the bookstore, but for Thom Kim’s tailor shop.
Siegfried had been doing a lot of business there lately. A man of his height required the help of a tailor from time to time, but he’d found dozens of excuses for alterations in the past few months. A loose button here, a burst seam there. He’d been visiting the shop almost twice a week, and I wondered why.
“Why are we hurrying?” I asked again.
He burst into a sprint, shouting now. “Look!” He lunged ahead of me, his sea blue eyes trained on the top floor of the building.
I smelled it before I saw it, then looked up.
It poured from the upper floor where Thom Kim lived with his sister, Lily. Although the street teemed with people, no one seemed to have noticed the smoke. We careened along the sidewalk, pushing through shoppers and students.
Cursing because I left my cell phone in the car, I grabbed the nearest student texting on his phone. He stared at me through black dreadlocks as if I were attacking him. Which I guess I was, in a way.
I pointed up. “Call 911. Tell them there’s a fire.”
The crowd parted, staring and pointing at the smoky building. The boy with the phone gawked at me, as if locked in a trance.
I shook his arm. “Call 911!”
In that instant, he came to life, stabbing at his phone. “Okay. I’m on it.”
Siegfried and I rushed into the building. No one stood behind the sales counter or in the work area in the back of the shop.
“Where are they?” I said, hurriedly searching behind doors and cabinets.
“Upstairs,” Siegfried said with certainty, pointing toward a back staircase.
We scrambled toward the stairs, entering a cloud of thick, choking smoke.
A woman’s cry came from above.
“Lily!” Siegfried shouted, covering his mouth and nose with his shirt. He scaled the steps two at a time with me right behind him.
A hoarse bellow came from the left in what had to be Korean, Thom’s native language. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of movement, followed by a burning rafter crashing to the floor, but smoke quickly obscured my view.
A flicker of orange flames bloomed in another doorway, flaring to the ceiling. The fire was spreading fast.
“Professor,” Siegfried yelled over the roar of the inferno, peering into the darkness. “I can’t see!”
On the far side of the building, a window cracked and exploded, allowing the smoke to shift and clear just enough to give us a view of the bedroom, where I now headed to search for Thom Kim.
“There!” I said, pointing to the man pinned beneath a fallen timber.
Fire crackled along the wall and licked orange-red near his arm. The bed, fully engulfed, leapt with flames.
A scream erupted farther down the hall.
“Get her!” I shouted over my shoulder, stumbling toward Thom.
Siegfried quickly ducked into the smoke, following the direction of her cries.
The wall of heat blasted me, nearly melting my resolve. Stooping low, I took a deep breath and crawled toward Thom. I pulled hard on his arm, but couldn’t budge him. He uttered a low moan. The fire had reached him and his sleeve was starting to burn.
Grabbing his jacket from a nearby chair, I slapped it over his arms, extinguishing the flames, then kicked repeatedly at the scorched beam until it finally moved. Breathless, I half-dragged, half-carried Thom out to the hall, stumbling backwards away from the fire and denser smoke. With a concerted effort, I slung him over my shoulder.
A blast came from the rear of the building.
Oh my God. Siegfried. Lily.
Horrified, I searched the smoke for my friend, shouting his name. “Siegfried!”
The black cloud rolled with a vengeance now, completely obscuring my vision. I struggled to breathe and reached for the stairway rail, trying to balance. Tears bathed my eyes, but failed to cool the inflamed tissues. I wanted to pull my shirt over my mouth and nose, but it was impossible with Thom on my back. I didn’t want to drop him.
Siegfried stumbled out of the darkness and crashed toward the stairway with Lily in his arms. Tinier than her brother, she clung to Sig’s neck, still conscious. Choking with relief, I followed them down the stairs and into the street with Thom draped over my back. The fire roared above, creeping up the outer walls, and sparks fell to the sidewalk. Breathing hard, we ran away from the burning building.
Wailing sirens approached in the distance.
Thank God, the fire department.
In front of the old cinema, two students reached out to help me carry Thom farther down the street.
Holding his legs, I walked with them, noticing the gash on his forehead and the angry burns on his arms and face. “Careful,” I said.
“He’s badly burned.” I looked down at my own arms, which prickled and throbbed, but they weren’t nearly as bad as Thom’s.
“Are you okay, Professor?” Siegfried said, coming up close behind us.
I nodded, catching my breath. “I think so. You?”
Still carrying Lily, he gave a curt nod in return. “Ja.” Soot smeared his face and arms. His ponytail had come undone, and his hair flowed over his shoulders in a snarled tumble. Backlit by the light of the fire, he reminded me of an angel warrior.
Two fire trucks shrieked to a stop in front of the burning building, delivering firemen who raced to set up the hoses. A kind young woman came toward us with a blanket, laying it on the sidewalk. She helped us gently lower Thom to the ground.
The owner of the bagel shop dragged a chair onto the sidewalk, motioning to Siegfried and Lily. “Set her down right here ‘til the ambulance comes.”
“Okay.” Siegfried tried to put her down, but she wouldn’t let go. Still coughing, he stuck a hand out to stop the well-meaning spectators who tried to pry her off him. He waved them away. “Nein. I will hold her.” He dropped into the chair with Lily on his lap.
Wild-eyed, she looked around with panic in her eyes. “Thom?” A slew of words I didn’t understand followed, trailed by a long bout of coughing.
I tried to calm her. “Thom is there, Lily.” I pointed toward her brother who lay on the blanket nearby.
Well-meaning volunteers surrounding him and blocked her view, thankfully hiding his condition from her. Within minutes, however, an ambulance skidded around the corner and screeched to a stop twenty yards from us. The bagel shop owner ran into the swelling crowd, waving her arms to get their attention. “Over here.”
The van backed toward us and two EMTs leapt to the street, sprinting in our direction.