The morning I brought the Andrew Bednarski cello into the police, I tuned it up and practiced on it one more time.
I had a strong suspicion it would not be returning home with me. I needed to inhabit that warm sound for one more hour: release it into the room and let it sink into the walls. I was feeling a bit like that little boy in “The White Ribbon,” the pastor’s son who had rescued an injured bird and was given permission by his father to keep it for as long as it would take to nurse it back to health, with the understanding that he would have to eventually return it to its proper place in the wild.
The intrument had only been a part of the landscape for a brief, tense weekend, during which I argued with my better sense and bargained with my conscience. From the moment I had first read the crime watch report about the heist in Brookline, however, I knew in my heart what needed to be done.
I had spent the better part of Saturday and Sunday churning over the likely fate of Bridget, who had morphed in my mind from a beleagured mom juggling debts, raising a daughter and moving homes to a deeply troubled woman with a rap sheet and, from all appearances, a drug habit.
Why should it matter to me? As the detective in town would remind me the next day, I was victimized along with the folks who had their house broken into in the spring. I had been lied to. I had been played. I was $500 poorer.
And I have known on many other occasions in the past what it is like to have person and home violated, to see my stuff unceremoniously relocated to an unknown location. Like the couple in Brookline, I had myself once returned home from a vacation to find my apartment raided and personal effects removed, most upsettingly (not to say inexplicably) a favorite framed photograph of my then-infant niece and nephew. Let’s not forget that evening, while watching the sunset with a date on a West Village pier, we were held at knifepoint by a couple of wound-up crackheads; or the time I was left lying unconscious on a street in Barcelona, choked by muggers in broad daylight for a wallet that would reward the takers with a few pesetas and an AmEx receipt for two terrycloth bathrobes.
Something happens when you have spent an hour or so with a person you are about to finger to the police. Something shifts.
You recall the casual grace note in an email Bridget had sent, the one where she apologized for not getting back sooner and expressed the wish that you were enjoying the glorious spring day. You think about the stray biographical details you found through Google, the ones describing her master’s degree in education and her good works with inner-city children. You wonder about the daughter who is going to have to go back to school every day owning the damage of her mother’s errors in judgment. You wonder how and why the worm turned. You play out little dramas in your head, scenes of weeping, regret, rage.
You think about your own moment of malfeasance in college, your personal rush course in Miranda rights and bail bonds.
I had no idea what role in a breaking-and-entering job Bridget shared, if any, or if she was merely acting as a fence for stolen goods. This did not strike me as someone who would pull up to a locked house in the dead of night with a U-Haul, monkey with the burglar alarm and roll out the front door with a big-screen TV and a small museum of antique instruments on a hand truck. But if the cello was indeed the same one among several choice items that had been appropriated from a couple in suburban Boston, things would probably not go well for her.
So, you do what you have to do. You go to the police. But you pause first. You consider. You take a deep breath.
The local police sergeant was a courtly, boyish guy with a guarded smile, darkly tented eyes and the contained build of a college quarterback: A shrink-wrapped Treat Williams. Exceedingly polite, bordering on deferential. A good fellow. He introduced himself as Dan.
Sgt. Dan excused himself from a visiting inspector to hear out my story, which I enhanced with a printout of the Brookline crime watch report and the entire Gmail exchange leading to the purchase. “It’s a very good thing you came in,” he said when I was done. “The last thing you want is to be found in possession of stolen property.”
Validation. I scarfed it down like I hadn’t had anything to eat all weekend.
After scanning the evidence, Sgt. Dan asked me to get the instrument out of the car and place it upright on a bench in a side room, the holding pen for recalcitrant locals. He then brought in a camera and photographed it from several angles. The cello looked forlorn, prone, submitting to mug shots. I imagined it handcuffed at the neck to the bench, phoning for a parent or legal counsel. What had it done to deserve this ignominy?
After I reprised my narrative in its entirety, Sgt. Dan pulled a form from a drawer and asked me if I could write out everything I had just said. Then, almost apologetically, he said it would be best if I left the cello behind for information gathering. He gave me a sad look that told me he knew how big a thing this was to have to do.
The following morning, I dropped the written testimony off at the station, then headed over to the mall for a compensatory sprint through Target, Whole Foods and Stop & Shop. En route home, the cell phone rang. It was Sgt. Dan.
“Mr. Stuart? Well, things have taken a turn. It looks as if the cello is a match.”
I could tell from his voice that it would be a good thing if I swung around to the station right away. When I arrived, Sgt. Dan was commiserating with an off-duty colleague, an affable, well-fed gentleman in tee shirt and Bermuda shorts. I took a chair between them.
Sgt. Dan spoke. “The A—— police are now working with the Brookline police on the case. It looks as if all three cellos were part of the stolen goods. They would like you come in and identify the house where you made the purchase.” I did a quick mental calculation of how many precincts were now tied up with Andrew Bednarski cello. (Three). This was big.
“We were wondering,” he said, continuing with caution, “how you would feel about going back to the house of the woman who sold you the cello to purchase another one?”
I forwarded this notion to my brain, which texted back noisily, buzzing and screeching like one of those city auto alarms that exhaust an extended repertory of extraterrstrial sounds before abandoning you to recover your shattered nerves in silence.
When the commotion subsided, I entered into a short but meaningful conversation with myself.
Am I hearing this correctly, Jan? They want me to be the front man in a sting operation? Yes Jan, that sounds right. They want you to go the extra mile. They are testing your mettle. Are you up to it? No, I’m really not up to it. Much as I hate to disappoint you. Please try not to be too hard on me. I have a dearth of mettle.
Sgt. Dan and Bermuda shorts sat atop their desks, bearing down on me with encouraging half-smiles. Time to draw the line.
“Well, I think that may fall outside my comfort zone,” I said. Or words to that effect.
They were expecting this. “We’ll figure something out,” says Sgt. Dan, keeping me in the game.
I jumped into my Matrix and followed Sgt. Dan in his squad car into town, parking in front of the red brick police precinct on Main Street. As we entered the building, he confided that the owner of the stolen instruments was an elderly physician, a collector, who had fallen into a deep depression after the theft. The information made me oddly uncomfortable.
Inside, we were greeted by Detective T. I could tell from the squeeze of his hand that he was a seasoned hardhead. Smooth, but sturdy: Dirty Harry as played by Richard Widmark.
Detective T repeated the sting strategy to me, fire in his eyes. Picking up on my reluctance, he demurred, asking if perhaps instead they could have one of their people go in and introduce themselves as a relative of mine.
“Even better, they could say they were a fellow student in my cello class,” I offered in kind, slightly disturbed at my own enthusiasm. They seemed to like this idea.
Detective T and Sgt. Dan led me down a hallway and to a parking lot in the back, stopping at a grey sedan. I got into the front, Dectective T took the wheel. Sgt. Dan sat in back, most quietly.
The day was growing cloudier and weirder. I was riding in an unmarked police car, returning to the scene.
We drove to the house in silence, muted by the weight of mission and the vague discomfort felt by strangers penned up in a car together. When we arrived, it looked frail and defeated. I thought of Bridget standing out front just days before, waving my car over and smiling.
Detective T signalled the office and asked them to check on the ownership of the house. He then turned the car around and headed back down the road, pointing out the house where Bridget and her family presently lived. Folks were home. Two cars sat in front. In a day or so, I figured, there would be one or two more.
As we drove back into town, I was struck by the utter lack of sentimentality with which Detective T conducted his business. He does this day in and day out, I thought. Running checks on suspicious houses. Honing in on people who have made bad choices. Driving into the thick of unpleasantness.
This moved me very deeply. When the detective dropped me off at my car and walked back into the station with Sgt. Dan, they said they would do what they could do get my money back. I thanked them both, and the sheer rawness of my gratitude caught me off guard.
The following morning, the clouds gave way to a light drizzle. It was time to start cleaning the house and packing for a trip to Europe. But I felt inert. It had been a draining and lonely couple of days. I needed succor.
I got in the car and headed over to the library, making a bee-line for the comfort-food: the children’s video section. The spines of all the movies were worn down to the point of illegibility, as if they had been savaged by an invading tribe and thrown back on the shelves. I pored over the films for nearly a half hour, testing my mood to determine whether this was Miyazaki day or a “Babes in Toyland” day. I finally settled on “The Parent Trap” and “The Muppet Movie.” The librarian gave my choices a big thumbs up. I basked in her approval.
The rain began to gather steam as I moseyed home, accelerating from a trickle to a resolute drumbeat. The road was deserted. There were no cars in sight, other than the now-familiar white and blue outline of a local police SUV, catapulting in the opposite direction. The SUV zoomed by, presumably headed toward the precinct. Something must be cooking. Business was obviously picking up.
Taking a right, I glanced in my rear view mirror and noticed that I suddenly had company. The police car that had passed me a moment ago had executed a breakneck U-turn and was now bearing down on my Matrix, blue lights flashing. Damn, this is for me. I could feel my entire body compress and deflate. I pulled over, keeping a tense eye on the rear view mirror.
Instinctively, I affixed my hands to the steering wheel. All I could think was, Crap, I’ve been pulled over by a cop, and a Hayley Mills video is lying flat out on the shotgun seat.
The policeman sidled up to the window. It was Sgt. Dan. Breathless.
“Oh, Mr. Stuart, I was hoping that was you,” he said with a a sheepish smile. “Sorry to pull you over. We’ve got a search warrant, and we’re about to move in. Detective T. had a couple more questions he hoped you could answer now.”
Sgt. Dan stood in the rain, looking excited and wet. I felt a twinge of affection.
“Does he want me to come in?”
“No. I can relay your answers. Very quickly, do you know if Bridget signed the check you gave her? And how did you find out about her previous arrest?”
Yes, you can see the signature on the bank website. Google search engine.
“Great. Thank you sir.”
I wished him good luck, vowing to myself that I would never utter an inclement word about the police again.
I was in New York City a few days later, gathering things together for the trip when the cell phone rang.
“Good morning Mr. Stuart. It’s Dan. I know you’re going to be taking off soon. But I wanted to catch you before you left to let you know that we’ve got your money back.”
Like most refunds, it would arrive after an extended delay. The trip to visit Matthias’ family in Germany, with roundabout detours to Portugal and Lago Maggiore, couldn’t have happened along at a better moment. After the events of recent days, I was gunning to take a break from sedentary New England villages where nothing ever happens. And, thanks to Matthias’ mother, who had pulled a rabbit or two out of her hat to locate a temporary cello for me while in Europe, I could quickly redirect my spent energies back into practice.
The rabbit came in the person of Matthias’ godfather in Stuttgart, Wolfgang, a gregarious career attorney and avocational musician who had generously agreed to loan me his son Kai’s cello, with a free at-home lesson thrown in at no-extra cost. Wolfgang’s instructional methodology involved the pre-consumption of copious quantities of (excellent) local Riesling and a private performance of Bach’s first Cello Suite, activities which managed to use up most of the alloted lesson period. Kai’s cello was of relatively recent Italian vintage; the timbre lacked the richness of my lamented Bednarski, but it was a solid instrument and more than adequate for pacifying the extended family of spiders and snakes in residence at the house in Lago Maggiore.
When we returned from Europe three weeks later, Sgt. Dan pulled up the driveway in his blue-and-white SUV, a money order for $500 in hand. They had coaxed it out of Bridget, he explained, telling her that things would go easier for her if she cooperated and provided information. She was apparently very contrite and conceded she had made a lot of mistakes.
And what about the two other stolen cellos?
“They were never found,” he replied with a punctuation mark of disappointment that seemed to indicate this was as much as he was prepared to say. Sgt. Dan thanked me again, climbed into his SUV and backed it out of the driveway.