forgive the past with me
 

Chapter 1: Not Enough To Understand

August 17, 1957

"I think I can help with that last verse." Dan held the papers tightly in his hand. He took another calming breath. "I've been holding on to these for a very long time."

Neil was leaning against a wall, his arms crossed. He turned and looked curiously at the pages. "Your father's music?"

Dan nodded. "I think Tony killed my mother to get these." He still didn't want to let go of them.

"Over music?" Brian shook his head incredulously.

Dan and the other teens, except for Harvey, were all gathered in the living room of the Wheelers' Manhattan apartment. They had just found out that Tony and Blinky were still on the loose and were reviewing the prophecy Trixie had been given by a Mexican woman she had met at the airport at the beginning of the week. The last verse of the poem was the only part of the prophecy that hadn't seemed to come true yet.

Un estante móvil, rieles aceros;
un cuarto oculto detrás de los libros;
acertijos musicales aún no están claros ...

Dan knew what the words referred to. The first part of the verse had to do with a room in his childhood apartment in Harlem. The second part had to do with the pages of music he had kept for so long at his father's request.

"Can I see?" Neil stood up straight and held out his hand for the mysterious papers.

Dan looked at Regan and then back at Neil. If anyone in this room was going to make sense of these songs, it would probably be Neil. He placed the pages in Neil's hand, as if letting go of some huge burden.

Neil grinned gratefully, but then his expression changed to one of bafflement. "These aren't written for guitar. I've never seen a symbol like this."

"Let me see, please?" Honey got up from the couch where she had been seated. "That is, if it's okay with you, Danny?"

Dan nodded.

She looked just as bewildered. "It's not for piano either. Or for any instrument I know of."

"Can I see?" Barbara came over to their group and timidly reached for the pages as well. She had nothing to add when she saw them and quietly handed them back to Honey.

"I'll go grab my guitar and see if I can play the notes." Neil ran out the door.

Miss Trask came to look at the music, but her blue eyes just registered confusion as well.

"It might be meant to be an Alto symbol, but if it is, it's not drawn correctly." Honey shrugged. "Actually, it doesn't really look like one at all, but it's the only other thing I can think of."

Bob peered over Honey's shoulder looking at the pages in her hand. "I hate to ask, but is it at all possible that your dad just didn't know how to write music properly?"

Dan looked at Honey quizzically, trying to determine if she thought there was any merit in what Bob was saying.

Honey stepped closer to him. "See, here," she pointed to some squiggly symbols at the beginning of the lines. "Those are the clefs. There's usually a treble or a bass or maybe both in grand staff, but we don't know what this symbol or key is here, and that key would tell us what notes are on each of the lines."

Dan studied the page more carefully but she may as well have been talking in Greek, or Spanish.

"And then the beats, those make no sense at all. This one says fourteen-thirds time while this one is seven-fourths. Those are not normal intervals. And they're different all down the page. And then the breaks here—" She pointed to some lines going down in between the notes. "They seem to be put in haphazardly."

Dan's head was spinning with all the things that were "wrong" about the music.

"It's definitely a 'musical riddle still unclear'." Mart grinned at Trixie, his eyes sparkling with excitement.

Neil returned in time to hear Mart's remark; his guitar out and slung over his shoulder. He walked over to Dan and Honey and gently took the papers from Honey's hands.

"I don't know how to read music, but I know it's very different from the rest of my dad's songs." Dan's stomach was twisting into knots. "I wish I could show you some of his other work, and you'd see what I mean. His other stuff had more lines all over the place and little symbols in between the notes. It looked like the kind of songs that were in the books he bought." He wished he hadn't been so stubborn and had learned more about music from his father. Then maybe he could talk intelligently about these papers. Right now, he felt like an ignoramus.

Honey smiled. "I'd love to see something else of his."

Neil sat down on the sofa and put the sheet music down next to him. He strummed his guitar and started to pluck at the strings, but the notes on the paper didn't translate well into music. Even to Dan's untrained ears, he could tell the sounds were all over the place and the beat seemed to keep changing.

Sometimes Neil would play fast and then slow, but it had no rhythm to it. He tried again. "If anything resembling music comes from this, it would be mere coincidence. I don't even know if I'm playing the right notes." He shook his head. "Do you have any other music he wrote?"

Dan shook his own head in response. "No." He stared down at his feet. "I just have these because he asked me to hold on to them for him." Dan looked to his uncle and noticed for the first time how pale Regan's face had become. The freckles on his nose and cheeks stood out. "Uncle Bill?"

Regan's eyes focused on him as if he were coming out of a trance. Then he turned to Neil. "Can I see those?"

Neil put his guitar aside and walked over to Regan, handing him the pages.

Regan took them from him and quickly looked them over. "That's not music. It's a code."

"A code?" Trixie hadn't been interested much in the music, but that word got her attention. "Like something that needs to be deciphered?"

"Neat!" Ned nearly jumped with excitement. "A secret code!"

Regan's eyes filled with tears but he smiled. "Something my sister made up when we were in the orphanage. She would use it to write notes to some of the other kids without worrying about them being picked up by any of the Sisters." He looked over the papers.

Di smiled. "Now this is a mystery I don't mind getting involved in. It's kind of like trying to solve those puzzles in those old magazines."

Barbara turned to face Trixie and Di who were still seated on the couch. "Oh, you mean like those word puzzles they sometimes have in the back of Ladies Home Journal? I love doing those."

Di nodded. "Something like that. We once found these old St. Nicholas magazines in Honey's attic and those had really complicated puzzles. Although I couldn't actually figure them out, it was fun trying."

"Do you know how to read this code, Regan?" Jim was leaning against the armchair that Mr. Wheeler still occupied. He looked at Dan's uncle expectantly.

"It's been over fifteen years." He shook his head. "She had tried to teach it to me, but I was only six; I could barely read then. I don't remember how she came up with the code. And I don't know how to decipher it."

Mart was staring at Dan; his blue eyes intense. "When your dad gave those to you, did he tell you they were songs?"

Dan nodded, and then shook his head. "Yes, but ... I had taken those papers off his desk and when he caught me looking at them he got really mad. He never minded my looking at his work before, only this was different. He hardly ever raised his voice, but, when he saw me holding those papers, he started yelling at me." He sank down in a nearby chair.

"Then what?" Neil asked gently.

"He was in the Organized Reserve Corp and had just been called up; he was going to be heading out to Korea soon. I thought that was why he might have been so upset." Dan swallowed. "Anyway, as soon as I gave them back to him, he just calmed down almost as quick as he'd gotten mad. But later, on the day he left, he told me those songs were very important and he asked me to keep them safe." He had protected them, but at the cost of his mother's life.

"How do you know it's a code, Regan?" Jim asked.

Regan sniffed away a tear and cleared his throat. "See this little three-leaf clover drawn on the bottom?" He held the papers up for everyone to see. "That was something Sarah always did. She drew three-leaf clovers all the time."

Bob's eyebrow quirked upward. "Why three leaves instead of the lucky four?"

Regan let out a little laugh. "Because four-leaf clovers are lucky, and she felt like we never were." He looked at the pages in his hand again. "And here, this symbol or key thing or whatever it's called—"

"The clef," Neil supplied.

"Right. Anyway, it's Sarah's initials, see?" Regan traced his finger around the odd symbol and Dan could see that it was "S E R" all jumbled together.

Mr. Wheeler cleared his throat. "There must be a way to decipher it. May I?" Regan brought the papers over to his employer, who studied them carefully. "If a young girl made this up, it can't be too difficult to break, right?"

Trixie's eyes held that same look they had just one week ago, as if she were staring far off into space.

Brian groaned and moved to stand in front of the couch where she was sitting. He clapped his hands loudly in front of her face. "Earth to Trixie."

"Yes." Trixie perked up. She ignored Brian and addressed Mr. Wheeler. "You're probably right. If Regan's sister made up this code, we'll crack it."

Jim smiled at Trixie and gave her a fond look. "You will figure it out. I'm sure of it."

Mart snorted. "I think your confidence in her capabilities is somewhat misplaced. She said 'we', and we, as a group, will figure it out."

Dan heard the teasing banter among the friends but didn't quite listen to it. If his mother had written the code—if she had written those pages—did that mean that she did know what Tony was looking for on that horrible April day? He wasn't sure what to think anymore.

 

"Dan?" Honey stood next to him at the kitchen sink. "Can I help?"

He smiled at her, but was a little anxious about the tremble in her voice. "You helped cook. You don't need to help clean."

Earlier, the teens had decided to put on some kind of show after dinner for Mr. Wheeler, Miss Trask, and his uncle. Neil, Bob, and Barbara planned to play music and sing. Mart and Ned had talked about putting together a magic act. He wasn't sure what Brian, Jim, or Harvey were planning to do. Since Trixie, Honey, and Di had cooked dinner, the three girls were just going to sit back and enjoy whatever the others came up with. He couldn't think of anything to do either, so he'd volunteered to clean the kitchen instead.

Honey fiddled with her hands nervously, and then she pulled a clean towel out of one of the drawers and started drying the dishes he had already placed in the rack.

The two worked silently for a while, but it felt awkward. Dan's stomach flip-flopped. He didn't think she was just there to help him. Whatever she wanted to ask him or say to him, it couldn't be good. "The stroganoff was really delicious," he finally said, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

"Oh, that was mostly Trixie's doing. And Di took care of the vegetables." Honey frowned as she added another plate to the growing stack. "I wish I could cook as well as they do."

Dan wasn't sure how to respond. He'd never tasted just her cooking, so telling her she could cook didn't seem right, but not saying anything seemed worse. "I bet you can cook as well as they can."

She shook her head, denying it. "They've watched their mothers in the kitchen their whole lives. My mother hardly ever even steps into the kitchen."

He placed a glass upside down on one of the plastic tabs of the rack. "But that doesn't mean you can't go in there, does it? Maybe you can learn from your cook?"

Honey nodded half-heartedly. "Did your mother cook a lot?"

He almost didn't hear her, she had spoken so softly. "Yeah. Yeah, she did."

"I'm ... I'm so sorry about ... I mean, I haven't really had a chance to talk to you since Regan and you mentioned what Tony did." Her hazel eyes filled with tears.

Dan swallowed, trying to hold back his own tears. He concentrated on the hot water running over his hands as he rinsed the next glass.

"I can't even imagine how awful that must have been," Honey choked out. "I just ... I'm really sorry." She glanced up at him.

Dan nodded. "Honey? Is that what you came in here for? To ask me about my mom?"

She glanced up at him and nodded slowly.

He felt a sense of relief that it wasn't anything worse. He rinsed off the last of the glassware and shut the water off. "Is it okay if we don't talk about that right now?"

She concentrated intensely on the plate she was drying. "I shouldn't have brought it up. I really am sorry."

He could see a tear slipping down her cheek. He felt like a complete heel. "It's okay, really. I'd like to talk to you about it someday." He found another towel and started to help her dry.

 

After breakfast the following day, Mr. Wheeler went up to Sleepyside to see Honey's mom, and Miss Trask had gone to visit her sister as usual. Both promised to be back in the late afternoon. The teens had talked about doing more sight-seeing, but it was quickly determined that not one of them wanted to do anything besides tackle the mysterious code. By noon, they still hadn't gotten anywhere. Regan made them take a break for lunch. They ate quickly, anxious to get back to work.

"If we assume this really should be the same notes as a treble clef, then that would make this E-F-D-D-B-E." Neil read off the notes to Ned as he wrote them down on a piece of paper. "After that is F-F-B—I mean D—rest-D-A—"

Neil was trying to read more of the notes when Mart interrupted him. "B-A-F-F-L-E-D is more like it. The whole thing is baffling."

Neil ignored the interruption and called out the rest of the line. He looked at Honey. "Some of those are open notes. Do you think that means anything for the code?"

Dan stood up from his seat at the kitchen table. Only half of the crowd was still in the kitchen looking over these pages. Some had already given up and were in the living room talking about other things. He looked at the sheet music and then looked over Ned's shoulder at his notes.

E F D D B E     E B G F F G B D     F F D     D A C G E E     D F

"Yes," Honey said. "I'm sure it must. Let's mark the open ones and see if we have any patterns that would help us identify a word. Here, let me." She slid the piece of paper towards her and took the pencil from him.

Dan peered over to see what she was doing. "E-F-D-D—this is hopeless!" Dan slumped his shoulders and pushed his chair under the table so he could lean over it better. "Don't you remember anything about the code, Uncle Bill?"

"I wish I did." Regan gave him a sympathetic look. "They can't all be the same seven letters of the alphabet over and over." He turned to Honey and Neil. "How many notes can be on each of those staff things?" He moved to stand beside her and get a better look at what she was doing.

"Each line and each space can be a different note, so nine. But then you can go above or below that as far as you like, depending on which instrument the music is written for." Honey showed Regan on the sheet music how some of the notes were drawn above or below the staff lines.

Neil picked up the other two pages of musical code and looked them over carefully. "It looks like it never goes more than one note above and one below. That would make it eleven notes."

"And if you add in the open versus closed notes, that could make it up to twenty-two different symbols." Honey sighed. "Still four letters short of the alphabet."

"Q-X-Z-..." Mart started saying random letters.

Brian nodded. "The lesser-used letters. Are you thinking maybe she skipped them, or they could go further up or down for the notes, but we just don't see any on these pages?"

Dan's spirits lifted briefly. "Do you think that could be a possibility?" He pulled his chair out again and sat down. He knew he was acting restless but he couldn't help it.

Barbara looked over at him, her dark blue eyes full of sympathy and an expression of helplessness.

Honey shrugged. "We won't know unless we try. Okay, for the open notes, let's just write those as small letters for now, and keep the closed ones as capital letters. And for this E," she pointed to the bottom line of the staff, "and the D below it, let's underline those for now, and then from this F and up we should put a line over the letter."

Neil nodded. He looked at the code again and pointed to some of the notes. "So this will be underlined, and the next one isn't."

Dan was glad that had made sense to Neil, because he still felt like it was Greek.

Neil wrote out the notes on the first staff again, marking lines on the higher and lower notes.

"Let me see." Mart studied the paper carefully. "I can't think of any three letter words where the first two letters are the same except for 'eel'." Mart took the paper and pencil and started trying to guess at the letters. "See here, there are four underlined D's in this first part, so that must be a common letter like 'E'." He started a new line of guesses.

Dan groaned. "We'll never get this stupid thing figured out." He got up from the chair and walked out to the living room to join the others.

"Dan." Jim looked up at him as he entered the room, a queer expression on his face, as if he was both confused and wanting to express sympathy. "I know this might be ... well, we were just talking about Tony and wondering how ... how he ...."

Dan shuffled his feet as he walked across the carpet. He sat down on the floor with his back against the side of one of the two armchairs in the room, facing the three teens on the couch. "How he ... killed her? How he ... got away with it?" He frowned.

Regan came in and sat on the ottoman of the larger arm chair on the opposite side of the room.

Trixie nodded. "As much as we'd like for him to go to jail for all the times he tried to take the idol from us and for helping Pedro with the diamond, well, we'd all like it even more if he would go to jail for murdering your mom."

Regan made a noise almost like a growl. "He should get the electric chair."

Dan heard one of the chairs from the kitchen table being pushed back and then soft footsteps as that person walked in the room. "I can't concentrate, anymore," Honey said quietly.

Dan turned and glanced at her from his spot by the armchair. "Thanks for trying. I really mean it."

Honey walked over and sat on the floor near him. "We'll keep trying. We'll get it."

Dan felt tears welling up in his eyes. "What if we don't? Then what?"

"But we will figure it out." Trixie sounded confident and Dan wished he could believe her.

Di spoke quietly. "Can you tell us anything about what happened? You don't have to though, if it's too hard."

The tears started to brim over his eyes and run down his cheeks. "I'll try." Dan pulled his knees up to his chest. The events of that day played out in his mind.

Tony grabbed her arm and shoved her into the chair. He put his weight on top of her, pinning her down. From his jacket pocket, he grabbed a syringe, a sharp needle on the end. He whispered something to her, jabbed the needle into her arm sharply, and then quickly injected the contents of the syringe.

His mother cried out, a guttural roar, sounding like a wounded animal. But the cry held more anger than pain. She yanked the needle from her arm and tried to stab at the large man on top of her.

Tony slapped her hand away, and the syringe fell to the floor. "Bitch." He got up, and the chair squeaked with relief from the release of his weight on its old springs. He continued to hold Sarah down, his arm over her throat. With his free hand, he reached into his pocket, and pulled out a second syringe. He ignored the blood trickling from her arm and stuck her again. "Just to make sure you suffer."

Sarah began to twitch.

Tony sneered and calmly walked out of the room.

Dan stood inside the hidden closet, his eye glued to the slat that had allowed him to see everything. He waited for the sound of the front door latching shut and then quickly pushed on the lever that would move the book case out of his way.

He slid through the opening as it was still widening and ran to his mom, holding her, screaming at her to stop shaking.

He ran back to the closet, picked up the phone, and yelled at the operator. "I need an ambulance. Now!"

He looked back at the room at his mother's still twitching body. Suddenly, she did stop.

"No!" Dan ran back to her and held her tightly, crying. He noticed she was still breathing, although the breaths seemed shallow and far apart. "Wake up! Mom!!"

She was still alive when the ambulance arrived, but her lips had turned bluish and even her finger tips were turning purple. They had gotten her onto a stretcher, but Dan could tell by the way the attendants shook their heads, it was probably too late.

He saw the chair in his mind; the orange and white stripes were faded, the fabric was tattered, and his mother was simply ... gone.

His breathing became ragged. He felt a pain in his chest and a lump in his throat. "He had two ...."

Dan just realized that Tony had the drugs prepared in advance, two syringes full of what he later learned to be heroin and cocaine. Not only was the mixture dangerous, but judging from what he remembered, the amount he had used would have been enough to bring down an elephant. He had intended to use them all along.

"He meant to ...." Maybe there wasn't anything he could have done. Maybe giving Tony the papers would have just resulted in both of them dying that day from the extremely high dosage of the two drugs. "I just can't right now. Maybe later." He wiped some tears off his cheek with the back of his hand.

He felt a hand on his back, trying to provide comfort. Honey. Dan closed his eyes, letting the physical contact help ground him. Slowly, he got his breathing back to normal.


chapter 2: too many dances but not enough song