People die. You're a doctor, you adjust-either that, or specialize in
Dermatology. I'm a neurologist, a clinical professor at Manhattan Medical School down on First
Avenue and 30th, and in my more than twenty years of practice I've done my share of death
watches. But I still got knocked sideways one morning last December when my good friend
Shackie woke me with the news that Harry Hardwick was dead.
"...seemed fine at the party last night," I mumbled into the phone.
"He was," said Shackie. "He was murdered after the party."
I came fully awake, all systems on ready alert. Another perk of twenty-odd years of medical
practice. I rolled onto my side, folded the pillow in half with my free hand, and propped my head
against it. "Harry murdered?" I said. The words sounded incongruous, grammatically
"Shot." Shackie rushed on, a full question ahead of me. "Muriel came downstairs this
morning, and found him lying on the floor in his cylinder music box room. I thought you'd want
I looked at the alarm clock. Nine-thirty. Time for a quick music fix. Like Jimmy Durante's
old tune: "Start Off Each Day with a Song." I reached over and pushed the start lever on the
antique Swiss music box I keep on the night table, within easy reach from the bed.
Convenience, that's the thing. I live in the Gramercy North Apartments, across First Avenue
from Man Med hospital. How many New Yorkers own a thirty-second commute? When I get a
hurry-up call in the middle of the night, I play a couple of tunes on that music box while stuffing
myself into my clothes; then I ride the music across First Avenue and into the hospital.
"Verdi, right?" said Shackie. "La Forza del Destino."
I'd been humming softly along with the music. "Yeah. My Nicole overture box, the one by
"Thomas, I'm sorry. You're upset, aren't you? But I did think you'd want to know."
"I do, Shackie," I said. "I'd have been upset if you hadn't called."
Did you hear what I said there? Can you believe for a minute I wanted to hear somebody
blew a mortal airhole through Harry Hardwick? I know about John Keats, and how beauty is
supposed to be truth and truth beauty, but that's a pile of sophomoric crap. Keats died at
twenty-six, remember? Without a generous coat of varnish on our truth, I doubt many of us
would make it past twenty-six, or would even want to. It's not truth but stories that get us through
our long days and even longer nights. Stories are beautiful. Truth's ugly as sin.
I went to the kitchen and brewed a pot of coffee, then sat sipping and
brooding. What a way to start a vacation. I'd penciled myself in for a year-end
holiday, two weeks' worth. Starting that morning, my partners would cover my
practice. But one of my patients had stroked out at nine o'clock the evening
before, which meant I'd gone charging out of Harry Hardwick's annual Christmas
Extravaganza, the event of the year for the New York Music Box Collectors'
Association, practically before it began.
Then, a few lousy hours of sleep later, here comes a wake-up call telling me
someone shot Harry Hardwick.
Who murders a force of nature? It was impossible to picture Harry dead. He'd grown up
poor on the West Side of Manhattan, but he had brains and balls, and didn't stay poor for long.
By chance or design, he trained in electronics in the Army. When he came back from the Second
Big War he borrowed a little money on the GI Bill and opened Hardwick Electronix. From day
one, Harry plugged into the post-war mood. He knew what people wanted better than they did,
and sooner. Hardwick TVs were the top sellers in New York markets between 1948 and 1953.
By then Harry was well past his fifth million, living in an elegant old brownstone on East
62nd and planning his big push. In less than ten years the Hardwick chain stretched from sea to
shining sea. If it was electronic, Hardwick made it, sold it, fixed it.
Then came computers. To most people at the time, Univac was either a joke, a mystery, or
both. To Harry, it was an embryonic gold mine. Less than five years after he introduced the
Hardwick PC, Harry's name made Fortune's list of America's ten wealthiest men.
That's when he discovered music boxes. It happens to a lot of men in their mid-forties. Get
a new hobby or a new wife, the joke goes, and Harry never did things by halves. He got both.
Now he had a third B-bucks-to go with his brains and his balls. Within a surprisingly short time
he filled his 62nd Street brownstone with the finest and rarest antique music machines. Say this
for Harry: he was generous. He liked to play host. Three times president of the New York Music
Box Collectors' Association, Harry's home served as hub of the organization. Real collectors
were always welcome for a visit, and researchers were given carte blanche with cameras and
note pads. Parties were frequent and well attended.
And invariably, the center of activity was the big man with the shining dome
and beaming moon face. Harry was everywhere at once. Bantering, showing off new
acquisitions, telling jokes and listening to them, talking up possible
deals-Harry never sat pat.
The thought of him lying motionless on a marble slab in a morgue didn't work.
The phone rang me out of my funk. "Thomas Purdue," I snapped into the mouthpiece.
"Hey, Doc," sang the voice at the other end, "I got a hot one."
It was Broadway Schwartz. "You do, huh? Don't let it cool off. What's happening?"
"One of your favorite kind of music boxes-the little ones you wind up with a big clock
The bugle call to the chase. A sure cure-the only sure cure-for the depressed collector. I
stood up, bare feet and all, because with this kind of excitement who can sit?
"Okay, Broadway. You want me to come by your place? I'm free all day."
"Not this time," Schwartz chirped. "Guy has it knows what he's got, and it's too rich for me
to do spec. Go take a look, have a listen. If you like it, make your own deal, and figure ten
percent for Broadway. Fair enough?"
"Fair enough. Shoot."
"It's up on the West Side. On Amsterdam, between Seventy-Fourth and Seventy-Fifth, east
side of the street. The Gotham Antiques Mart. Owner's a guy called Marty Abramowitz. Big guy,
fat. Kind of bald. More'n a little on the greasy side."
"You're not overly specific. But all right. Is he open yet?"
"Is he open? For Christ's sake, how do you figure I saw it? Hey, it's ten-thirty already. If you
don't get your heinie in gear, somebody else is gonna pick this baby off. And oh yeah ... there's
something different about it. Kind of unusual."
My stomach stirred, not from hunger. At least, not food-hunger.
"You know how Swiss music boxes've got lines cut round and round on the cylinder, right?
Well, this one's got those ring-lines, but also it's got lines straight along the lengthwise of the
cylinder. Makes the thing look like a checkerboard. You ever see one like that?"
Harry Hardwick, alive or dead, suddenly never existed. My stomach rolled into a tight knot
beneath my ribs.
"You snooze, you lose, right? You know how it works."
"I'm on my way, Broadway. Talk to you later."
Broadway Schwartz is a picker, one of those characters who make the antiques trade run.
Whether in an attic, a basement, a cheap auction house, or a junkyard, the picker is always on
the prowl. A good picker is never put off by dirt, scuff marks, or rust. His nose can smell a good
item a block and a half down the street from a flea market; his eye can distinguish the McCoy
from a fake at twenty paces, and his memory instantly spits out the names and phone numbers of
every client who collects or deals in a particular line. A picker might pay fifty bucks for an item,
then pass it to his client for a hundred and a half. If the client happens to be a shopkeeper, he'll
put a price sticker of three hundred or three-fifty on it. It's an impressive money chain. If Alan
Greenspan ever asks me for advice, I'll tell him he's missing the boat by not paying more
attention to the Broadway Schwartzes.
I first ran into Schwartz fifteen years ago in a downtown flea market. As I haggled with a
dealer over a little German disc music box, I could feel two intense brown eyes taking in the
exchange from under the wide brim of a well-worn black fedora. When I finally walked away
with my prize, the little man followed. At a safe distance from the dealer, he congratulated me
on my bargaining skills, and introduced himself. He told me if I'd invest a little of my time in his
education, he would make me the biggest collector of antique music boxes in all five boroughs,
plus New Jersey.
So, I gave him music box lessons-why not? For his part, Schwartz delivered. If I never did
get to be Numero Uno among New York's music box folk, that was a matter of my own
limitations. No way could I compete with Harry Hardwick's bucks. And to face a fact-unpleasant
as that always is-Harry probably had me beat on those other two B's as well.
Early on I learned that Schwartz's eye puts Kodak's best to shame. That checkerboard
cylinder design my little picker had just described over the phone is the identifying characteristic
of something sensational. It sounded as if Broadway Schwartz had found a rigid notation
What's a rigid notation box? It's the top of the line, the musical crown jewels, la cre me de la
cre me de la cre me. Its music is exquisitely beautiful, and it is exquisitely coveted by people
like me. I've been collecting music boxes for nearly a quarter of a century, and I've seen and
heard exactly eight rigid notation boxes--none of them for sale.
Maybe I'd snoozed, but I wasn't about to lose. Not a rigid notation box. Shaving and
breakfast could wait. I was out the door before eleven. By a quarter after, I was off the subway
and working my way uptown on Amsterdam Avenue, head down into the biting December
As soon as I saw the green awning with the white letters, I recognized the Gotham Antiques
Mart. Like most collectors, I cruise shops more or less regularly, covering one or two
neighborhoods a day. Over the years I'd been in this place several times. I'd never found
anything--but it's been a while since antique music boxes were so plentiful that a collector could
find them with any degree of regularity.
The Gotham's warehouse-like room was divided into five aisles by back-to-back rows of
glass-front display cases, all crammed with china, glass, and silver. In the rear of the shop was
For specifics, that's as far as I can go. Some collectors have encyclopedic ranges of interest
and knowledge, but I'm narrow. Just the way my mind works, I guess. In medicine, I trained as a
neurological specialist, and whatever reputation I may have came through my research on the
effects of music on brain function. "That's Dr. Purdue, Soother of Savage Breasts," the
second-year med students say when they point me out to freshmen. It's the same way with my
collecting: antique music boxes are the beginning and the end. I can't tell a piece of Doulton
porcelain from Wedgwood, or Tiffany glass from Lalique, nor could I care.
They don't play
music. Furniture to me is just sticks cut and arranged in vaguely different patterns to make tables
on which to put music boxes. For all I know or care, Hepplewhite, Chippendale, and Sheraton
could be a firm of lawyers.
So, once inside the Gotham, I wasn't about to spend time looking around the shop. I'd come
for one item and prayed it was still there. I had no reason to play cute.
The dealer sat behind the counter. As I came in, all I could see was the shag-rimmed top of
his head above a copy of The Daily News. When I closed the door he looked up. His face was fat
and round; grease shone on his forehead. If Schwartz had described the music box as accurately
as he had the dealer, we were all three golden: the dealer had a sale, Schwartz had a commission
... and I had a once-in-a-collector's-lifetime treasure.
The fat man nodded, the customary and noncommittal greeting to the antiques customer. It
meant if I was only here to kick tires, he really couldn't stop me, so I should go right ahead. Just
don't bother him. If I saw anything I was serious about he'd open the cabinet for me.
"You've got a music box," I said.
Down went the newspaper, all the way to the counter. Behind gold-rimmed glasses, the
dealer's dark eyes glittered. He worked his tongue around the inside of his lips as he gave me the
quick once-over. Then, he bit on his thick lower lip. But he didn't say a word.
That seemed like an odd reaction to a customer, but antiques dealers tend to be more than
mildly odd. It's nothing like shopping at Macy's. "You have a music box," I repeated, deadpan.
"A little one, you wind with a clock key."
He smiled. Then, he nodded twice, quickly. His wattles shook like jelly. "Okay, buddy," he
said. "Hang on. I'll show it to you."
The man was a professional. Some antiques dealers see a prospective customer dressed in a
gray work shirt and jeans, with stubble on his face and a nice red pair of sleep-deprived eyes,
and they say, "Well, I do have one ... but I'm afraid it's quite expensive." In other words, don't
waste my time. This guy knew better. He'd undoubtedly seen people who looked a lot grubbier
than I did right then reach into their pockets and start peeling off hundred-dollar bills with as
much concern as if they were buying ice-cream cones for their kids. It works the other way
around, too. Some of the most notorious deadbeats and check bouncers in the antiques world
dress as though they were on their way to the Mayor's Inauguration Ball.
The dealer slid off his stool with an "Ooph," and disappeared down low, under the counter.
He resurfaced in a blink, holding a small, rectangular wooden box about eighteen inches long.
Just a plain fruitwood case, well-worn, with little brass handles at each end, set within recesses.
My poor heart went to pounding fast, with those little extra beats that make it hard to breathe
and even more difficult to talk. With exaggerated care, the fat man set his prize between us on
the wooden countertop. A little smile flickered around the corners of his mouth. Finally, he lifted
"Nice one," he said.
"Yeah." That's all that would come out. Just a little "Yeah."
Once again, Schwartz was right on target. The surface of the brass cylinder was deeply
tarnished, but what the hell--this music box was some hundred and sixty years old. And tarnish
or not, I had no difficulty making out the checkerboard pattern on the cylinder. The teeth on the
comb were finely cut, thin as needles, more than two hundred of them in the twelve inches of the
comb's length. "Francois Nicole" was impressed on the middle of the comb, behind the teeth--he
being the master Swiss craftsman in music boxes during the early nineteenth century. No
question about it. I was gawking into the heart and soul of one of the most magnificent musical
creations of all time. I was eyeballing my ninth rigid notation box.
I could have sworn that the dealer actually picked up on the thumping in my chest. He
chuckled, and reached over the top of the box to push the start lever. "Guess you wanna hear it,
The cylinder began to rotate, slowly, and with the first chord every hair on my body jumped
straight to attention. There's a delicate precision to the music on rigid notation boxes that lends
an other-worldly quality to the sound. Nothing here of the "tinkly music box"--that slanderous
line from the idiotic mouth or pen of some lunkhead who either has never heard mechanical
music at all, or can only remember his auntie's glitzy little jewelry case with its authentic
eighteen-note, made-in-Japan modern musical movement and an ugly plastic blob of a ballerina
on top, twirling to the tinkle.
Goddamn it to hell, real music boxes do not tinkle. Delicate though the sound of a fine
music box may be, the tones are rich and full, and in the very best of the best, they fairly tremble
in the air with the emotion of the man who first heard those notes in some special place inside
his skull, and who then took pains to set them to the surface of the cylinder so that we, listening,
might share his vision.
The first tune came from the overture to The Magic Flute, a rendition more light and gay
and airy than any ever heard in any opera house. Next was a portion of the Figaro overture, and
after that, a selection I did not at first recognize, but then it came to me: Idomeneo, also by
Mozart. The fourth tune was a passage from the overture to Don Giovanni, the most haunting,
heart-wrenching presentation of this piece I'd ever heard. By the time the music stopped and the
cylinder clicked to a halt, the music box was shimmering in my watery field of view. An
all-Mozart rigid notation box. Whatever it cost, whatever it took, this treasure was going home
with me, never to leave. It would go in my coffin with me. To hell with the harps of heaven.
The dealer brought me back with a phlegmy chuckle. "Does sound good, don't it?"
"Yes, it does." I looked up, right into his eyes. "Very nice. What do you need to get for
He chuckled again, and his ocular glitter ratcheted a couple of notches higher. "It's one of
the best I've ever had, buddy. Cost you six thousand. You knew that was the deal, right?"
I tried to remember what Schwartz had said. As best I could recall, he hadn't mentioned a
specific price, just told me the box wouldn't come cheap because the dealer knew what he had.
Well, Abramowitz did know he had a very nice music box--but just how nice, he didn't have a
clue. Which was understandable. Most music box collectors prefer the disc-playing machines,
the Reginas and the Polyphons and the Symphonions, with their bright, loud, "big" sound. Not
many people care much about cylinder boxes. Consequently very few people would even notice
a checkerboard pattern on a cylinder-let alone recognize its significance.
Most fine, early cylinder boxes sell in the two to three thousand dollar range, so
Abramowitz had set an asking price double that. Pretty stiff, he must have thought, but it wasn't,
not really. That checkerboard cylinder went right past him. He didn't know that on the extremely
rare occasions when rigid notation boxes are sold, their price has been as high as $25,000.
So, there I was, being offered the music box of my life, and at roughly twenty-five cents on
the dollar. You'd think I'd have plunked down the money, grabbed the music box, and run. But I
Collectors are funny people. Never mind that the dealer had already shot off every one of
his metatarsals. He didn't know that. If Abramowitz had made his pitch while the music was still
playing, I'd have reached into my pocket like an automaton, forked over his asking price, and
said thank you. But unfortunately for him, the effect of music is almost as evanescent as its
I gave Abramowitz my best professionally puzzled look, and said, "Excuse me. I thought
you said six thousand. What is the price here?"
The dealer's round face relaxed into a genial smile. "Your ears're fine, buddy. What's the
matter--that doesn't sound reasonable to you?"
"Frankly, no," I said. "It's high. Very high."
He was a pro, no question. Without letting his smile flag in the slightest, he managed to get
just the right amount of disdain and faint condescension into his expression. "High, huh? Well,
what would you think if I told you that this here music box ..." He paused, just long enough to
give the edge of the opened lid an avuncular pat, "came outta the O'Shacker collection. The
Charles O'Shacker collection."
At that point, I didn't know what to think. Charles O'Shacker--or Shackie, as I called
him--had been a very good friend for a very long time. Shackie earned his living restoring music
boxes, and he owned a small, definitely first-rate collection. But he'd never had a rigid notation
box. And, if he ever did have one, it would never have found its way into this place. Not under
My silence was making Abramowitz impatient. He picked roughly at some skin behind his
left thumbnail, then looked up at me. "You do know who's Charles O'Shacker?" he finally
"Sure," I said. "Anybody who collects music boxes knows who's Charles O'Shacker."
"Well, then," Abramowitz moved smoothly into grand intonational mode. "It was him who
sold me this box." He shrugged. "Needed money. Happens in the best of families." Another
The odor of horseshit was overwhelming. Shackie lived alone, and very simply. If someone
stiffed him on a repair job, he'd likely just shrug and go on with the next piece of work. Shackie
was the last person I could think of who'd sell a music box--any music box--out of his collection
for need of money. So, in our little game of Haggle, it was now advantage Purdue.
"Okay," I said quietly. "Maybe it was O'Shacker's music box, but we're not talking about
Winston Churchill, or the Emperor-God of China. Charles O'Shacker's name isn't worth two bits
on a music box price. And besides, no collector who needs money is going to sell his very top
machine. You know that." I jerked a thumb at the rigid notation box. "Six thousand dollars'
Abramowitz's chummy smile did a slight fade as lines tightened around his mouth. He
drummed his fingers on the countertop, a fast-running staccato. "Well, all right, buddy, okay. If
you're some kind of a big-time collector, you tell me. What's this box worth, huh? You give me a
I took a deep breath. We were getting serious. "It's a nice cylinder box," I told him. "A very
nice cylinder box. Cylinder boxes sell for two to three thousand, in good condition. Which this
You'd have thought I'd spit straight into his merchandise. He clapped his fleshy hand to his
forehead. "Oy, buddy! I'm used to goniffs in this place; three times now I've been held up. But all
they do is stick a gun in my face and take the dough outta the register." He gave me a withering
look. "I ain't never yet had a goniff try and rip me off by slinging bullshit in my face."
To close the discussion, he lowered the lid on the music box and moved his hands as if to
lower it behind the counter.
I fought the impulse to pay his six thousand. Play the game, I told myself. You're winning.
"As long as we're talking bullshit," I said, keeping my voice level, "why don't you tell me. What's
the most you've ever sold a cylinder music box for? A small one. Like this." I rested my hand on
Dark light glittered in Abramowitz's piggy eyes. The left corner of his mouth twisted
upward in subtle acknowledgment. The game was still on. He shrugged again, his round head
telescoping between his round shoulders. "...you think I am, anyway? Some kinda freakin'
encyclopedia? Jeez, buddy, I been selling antiques for thirty years now. I've sold hundreds of
thousands of pieces, and you want me to remember what's the most I ever got for a music box?
Tell you what. I give ten percent to dealers, so I'll make you the same price. That's six hundred
off; fifty-four hundred bucks, okay? What could be fairer'n that?"
"Turn the numbers around," I said. "Forty-five."
"Forty-freakin'-five?" Abramowitz glared at me as though I'd spit a second time. "Hey, in
case you ain't noticed, it's still a week and a half 'til Christmas. And just for the record, I ain't
jolly old St. Nick. Now, let's quit screwin' around. Money talks. Bullshit walks. Gimme five;
"Forty-five," I said, very evenly, being careful to keep every trace of frustration or
annoyance out of my voice. "That's more than I've ever paid for a small cylinder box, and I'll bet
it's more than you've ever sold one for. It's also halfway between three thousand, which would've
been my price, and your six. What could be fairer than that?"
Abramowitz cupped his chin in the palm of his hand, and proceeded to radiate weary
righteousness at me. "Are we talkin' cash?"
"Cash money?" This Abramowitz was one persistent fat son of a bitch.
"Green cash money," I said, and started to reach into my pocket.
"'Cause at that price I don't take no check. And for sure, no Visa or MasterCard."
He didn't want to take a bad check or risk a stolen credit card. There's also the point that
checks and credit cards represent traceable income. I always have a good handful of money with
me when I think I might be buying a music box.
I pulled my wallet out of my pocket and started to count out pictures of Franklin onto the
wooden surface next to my music box.
All of a sudden, Abramowitz looked as though one of his hemorrhoids had infarcted. "Hey,
buddy." He actually whimpered. "You got forty-five hundred bucks in bills ... in your
I stopped, and eyed him. He was actually pale. "Sure," I said. "That much in change gets
kind of heavy. And I just had my hernia repaired."
"You're some kind of wisenheimer," he said. "Just hold on for a minute, huh?" He trotted
around the edge of the counter and chugged to the door where he threw the deadbolt. He gave his
sign a quick flip so that the CLOSED side faced toward the sidewalk. "Christ Almighty," he
wheezed, as he did his quickstep waddle back to the counter. "You're a frickin' mugger's dream
come true. Walkin' the streets with forty-five hundred bucks in your pocket? The goniffs say a
prayer for guys like you before they get in bed at night."
Takes one to know one, I thought, but didn't say. I just smiled, counted out the bills, and
laid them on the counter.
As Abramowitz's sausage fingers closed around the pile he actually licked his lips. I thought
he might slobber on his take. He counted the money, then slid it off the counter with all the slick
insouciance of a Vegas croupier. Probably stuck it into a box hidden down below.
"Congratulations," he said. "You just got yourself one hell of a deal on a fantastic music
I smiled again and closed the lid.
His grin turned crooked. "You don't exactly give nothing away, do you?"
I shook my head. "I'm like you, a low-overhead operation. No freebies. No loss leaders."
He chuckled, bent over with a "whoof," then bobbed back into view, waving a brown paper
bag. "From Gristede's," he said, pointing at the red logo. "We'll put your music box in here. The
goniffs'll just think you been to the supermarket for a coupla melons."
I slipped the bag over the music box. Meanwhile, Abramowitz picked up a pen and bent his
head over a receipt book. "What's your name? For the record, that's all."
"Purdue. Thomas Purdue."
He nodded, filled out the page and tore it off the pad. "Here you go," he said, with a grand
I put the bag with the music box under my left arm, and slid the receipt, that little slip of
paper saying Antique Music Box - $4500, inside.
Abramowitz came from behind the counter and led me to the door. "Come back again,
Tom. You never know when I might have another one of these little beauties for you."
"Fine, but that's Thomas. Not Tom."
He gave a broad shrug. "Tom, Thomas, whatever. It's your name, buddy. Far as I'm
concerned, customer's always right." He waved and closed the door behind me.
Turning from the doorway onto the sidewalk, I bumped squarely into a tall young woman in
a gray Persian lamb coat, nearly sending her flying through the plate-glass storefront. I grabbed
at her arm to steady her, then mumbled a quick apology. She pulled roughly away and hurried
past me into the shop. So much for good will toward men.
I started down Amsterdam, moving as rapidly as possible through the mass of holiday
shoppers. I clutched my package tightly under my arm, so no goniff could push it out from
behind and take off down the sidewalk. I didn't feel the concrete beneath my feet. I barely
noticed the savage December wind whipping around corners of buildings, blasting into my face.
I had my love to keep me warm. I couldn't wait to show her off to Shackie.
But unfortunately, I couldn't show her to Harry Hardwick. You can't brag to a corpse.
End of Chapter One