A Captive Audience

Written in response to: Set your story in a drawing room.... view prompt


Fiction Mystery

"Nearly deafening," Tanis thought to herself. Though half her life had been spent living along the Massachusetts coast, she had never heard thunder this intense so close to the water. She recalled the Earth-shaking booms growing up in the flat-lands of New Mexico. That, and the growing coppery scent of moisture mixing with the red clay dirt, signaling an impending storm long before it ever reaches you. Not to mention the incredible lightning. Her parents would turn the lights out, open the window shades, and watch it for as long as the show went on.

The ancient building shook and creaked as the iron-gray clouds encroached on the last of the fading daylight. It stood the test of time for over three centuries, so fear of it blowing to bits was not much of a concern to bother with. A converted seaman's chapel built in the early 1700s by Captain Jameson Garrett, now a historical landmark home, had been in the family for generations. Her father, the eldest son and recipient of this heirloom had gifted it to her shortly before he and her mother picked up roots again and decided Puerto Montt, Chile, was more to their liking. Despite small-town folklore of hauntings, malevolent entities, and the rare odd occurrence, she took great pride in her home and the history it held.

Living alone, nights like this were all too frequent. Truth be told, she had grown rather indifferent to them. While her love life wasn't exactly booming, especially in the tiny city of Gloucester, she wouldn't call herself a "spinster" either. She was just...in a bit of a dry spell, you could say. Oh well, it seemed like after her last two blind dates, engaging conversation would need to be found another way. But, it's all right. She had other activities that fulfilled her. One being her loving devotion to music.

Twenty-three years before this stormy night, Tanis' mother persuaded her father to purchase an instrument for their daughter, hoping one day she might follow in her mother's footsteps and attend her alma mater, Berklee College of Music, in Boston. The surprise her father brought home couldn't have thrilled her mother any less. A beautifully gilded Zuckermann concert Flemish harpsichord! A classically trained flutist, her mother hoped for something more in line with the woodwind family. Nevertheless, Tanis loved it from the moment she laid eyes on it, choosing to spend many days of her youth practicing her hand agility as she played for hours. The sharp tones of the harpsichord became a salve for her soul.

With a glass of jammy barbera wine in one hand and a cheese plate in the other, Tanis made her way to the drawing-room to engage in an intimate performance for one. She had something exciting in mind and finally the time to do it. Just last week, a small, stained, and disintegrating leather satchel was discovered hidden in a wall she was removing to give the space a more airy feel. As Mitch, her contractor, carefully handed the bag to her, it nearly evaporated into dust, leaving behind five brittle but intact pages of calfskin vellum. She could see the iron in the ancient ink doing its best to corrode the pages that had been bundled together for a very long time. To her utter surprise, they were music sheets!

Delicately turning the pages over, she came to the fifth sheet, a letter, written in an exquisite hand:

"My dearest friend Jameson, please accept this piece I have penned for you. It is a sign of good wishes as you begin what I know will be a vibrant and lucrative sailing venture to the colonies. As a promising young talent yourself, I pray this will play like honey upon your ears, evoking memories of our lasting friendship.

Fair winds in your sails and godspeed, my friend. "

François Couperin

April 27, 1702”

François Couperin, she knew, was an enormously famous and talented French Baroque composer. She could only speculate that the "Jameson" referenced in the letter was Captain Jameson Garrett, builder of her now home. As a questioning and curious teenager, she recalled hearing accounts, while dragged along to the Massachusetts Historical Society by her father, of Captain Garrett's ill-fated final voyage in 1713.

While sailing along the eastern seaboard bound for North Carolina, the captain and crew of the HMS Arcturus were taken by surprise in a fog bank and slaughtered down to a man. The only sailor to escape with his life, Boatswain Davies, was spared to spread the word of the savagery committed by the newly minted marauder and future mentor to the dread pirate Blackbeard, Captain Benjamin Hornigold. Captain Garrett, it was said by the older generation of locals, is one of the several spirits that now haunts the old building, returning home from the sea.

Smacking the last peppery notes of wine from her lips, Tanis sat in front of the harpsichord, gently straightened the delicate pages, and breathed deeply to clear her mind. As her hands began to move deftly across the keys, her eyes reading just slightly ahead, so she knew where to go next, the room filled with hauntingly beautiful sounds. Though unnoticed through her concentration, shadows once still seemed to move about the room. Tanis felt a swaying motion, like the lightheaded feeling she would typically attribute to pushing the envelope beyond her average wine consumption. But this was different. This felt...better.

The final notes rang out, the atmosphere seemed to steady itself again, and the ride she had been on came to an end. As she slowly placed her hands on her lap, a sharp sound came from the darkened room behind her. It repeated itself several times, causing the hair on the back of her neck to stand on end. Yes, it was a thunderous and stormy night, but this was not from outside. It was far too rhythmic and repetitive in the short time it persisted. Clapping. Clapping from a single set of hands as if she just performed for a friend. But, she was alone, and burglars, so she assumed, were not really known for such straightforward praise during their robbery activities either.

After shaking off the initial surprise, Tanis jumped to her feet, nearly knocking over the piano bench in the process, and raced to the far wall where her father's college fencing sabers hung on display. She was no real swordsman herself, but perhaps she could handle one well enough to scare off an intruder.

The clapping continued for a few moments longer, as if coming from well-worn and very rough hands.

Saber in hand, Tanis, never one to scare too easily, broke the spell of that temporary surprise and dashed to the far wall, flipping on all the lights in the confined space.


Tanis ducked left into the library next, moving cautiously but quickly.

Still nothing.

What then was that noise? She systematically worked her way from room to room for the next ten minutes. Alone. She was utterly alone in her home.

Slowly, she walked back to the drawing-room, senses still on fire but gradually returning to a normal level. She wasn't going to stand there and play the "did I really hear that, or is it just in my imagination" game with herself, especially when she just tore the whole place apart and came up empty.

Tanis closed the drawing-room door this time. It felt a little funny doing so in her own home, but it put her a little more at ease. She lowered herself back onto the piano bench and straightened the music sheets that had fallen onto the keys during her jump. "You're scaring yourself, babe," she told herself. "This is what you get for constantly streaming all those true crime shows you're obsessed with."

Nerves calm and the house quiet, Tanis began her playing once again. As before, the air seemed to fill with a charge. The sound became like living water all around her, moving, swaying, pulsing. She loved music with every fiber of her being, and this was incredible! As she worked her way through to the end, she kept on going right to the beginning once again. "Magnificent!" she thought.

Again, the sustain from the final notes bled away gradually as she sat there, a smile of delight painted across her face. The lights all around her began rising back to full strength as if the gentle music had somehow dimmed everything. Or maybe it was just the world coming back into view from the break in reality by her simple pleasure.


Startled again, Tanis stiffened, head on a swivel, visually hunting around the small space. She was alone, in this closed-off room, and yet, it was clear that this was no weather anomaly. But what? It was the sound of hands clapping and most certainly coming from the direction of the ancient wingback chair to her right. Who, or what, the hell was going on here.

Tanis slowly rose from the bench again, moving quietly, eyes darting left to right, looking for anything out of place. Just as before, nothing was amiss. One step, two steps, quiet. Standing there in the center of the parlor, a cold chill moved up her spine. That prehistoric part of the human brain responsible for sensing danger was tingling inside her with every passing second.


Tanis nearly leaped out of her skin at the loud noise in the quiet room. She turned to see the harpsichord's music desk had flopped forward, spilling the vellum sheets to the floor. She didn't know what could have caused the heavy wooden holder to fall from a backward leaning position, and an odd sensation came across her as she approached the spot where the sheets lay strewn about the floor.

Tanis reached out to collect the pages, then stopped. As she did, the sheet furthest away lay face down, a glistening catching her eye. She reached out to scoop it up, seeing one single word written in bold, flowing hand scrolled across the center of it in dark ink that was...still wet to the touch. "Encore," it read.

What in the hell? This wasn't making any sense. She is completely and totally alone here. "The door to the parlor is closed for Christ's sake!" Tanis mumbled, smudging the fresh ink with her thumb as she picked the sheets up in a flurry. The old familiar tingle of fear... no, concern, rising up her spine.

Tanis marched to the parlor door and flung it open. It smashed into the wall with a crash, bouncing back slowly. "Who the fuck is in here screwing with me?" she yelled out as she began advancing to the kitchen, ready again with the saber in hand.

She had barely made it eight feet down the hall when another thud sounded from the drawing-room. She stopped. Senses ablaze, she pivoted on her heels and charged back like a bull rampaging toward a matador. Arms raised high, ready to strike down anything moving in her way, she burst back into the parlor. Nothing… No shadowy figures, no lurkers, no friends playing a joke. She was all alone. Then she saw it; her cell phone, lying face down on the floor, back atop the smudged sheet calling for more.

Picking up the phone, she saw the screen was unlocked. A video from the YouTube app was playing. It looked to be an old 1920's silent film. A stage performer was bowing profusely to an applauding audience. What...was going on?

While uneasy feelings tightened their hold, there was something inside her that seemed to tingle with a measure of unexpected excitement. The kind of excitement she felt when performing for others during her mother's dull dinner parties.

Tanis walked to the doorway, the only known way of ingress and egress from the room. She pulled the heavy wooden door shut, threw the lock on the old brass knob, and gave a firm tug, making sure it was nice and snug. Proceeding back to the harpsichord, she sat down, looked around the empty room once again, eyes resting perhaps a moment too long on the old wingback chair, and grabbed a sheaf of other music sheets she kept lying next to the instrument. She then placed her lithe fingers on the keyboard and began a slow rendition of "Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonata in F Minor, K."

Moments into the piece, a "B flat" rang out, entirely out of place. It was not the same sound the string makes when plucked at the stroke of a key. It sounded as if someone had gruffly yanked on it, causing a terrible ringing. She stopped abruptly. That key was nowhere near her hands, but she chose to continue on.

She had just reached the end of another measure when, quite piercingly, an "A sharp" shrieked, causing her to retract her hands fiercely. She sat listening as a tremor worked its way throughout her whole body. One minute. Two minutes. Ten minutes had passed, and nothing. All she could hear was the splashing from the gutters outside as torrents of rain gushed to the ground.

Tanis stood up and lifted the harpsichord's lid to examine the strings. Nothing was out of place. All dampers and jacks appeared to be aligned, and all strings were taut as if freshly tuned.

She sat down again slowly, breathing, she noticed, a little harder than she should have been. She straightened herself, flexed her hands, and began the Scarlatti piece for the third time.

Once again, a harsh and dissonant note came from the harpsichord only a few bars into the piece. "Dear God, what the hell is this?" Tanis muttered. Visibly shaken, she placed her now sweating hands on her lap. "Think, goddamn it!" she said aloud once, twice, three times. None of the last 45 minutes was making sense to her, and she was jumpy as hell. She closed her eyes, trying to steady her nerves and calm her breathing.

Ever so softly, Tanis could hear what sounded like the squeaking of old leather, as though someone of larger stature had just sat down. She turned quickly. Same old empty room, same empty wingback chair. She popped up from the bench, walked to the door, and gave it another reassuring tug. Locked up tight as a drum still. She sat back down with a huff.

What the hell was she thinking? She was just freaking herself out at this point. Tanis leaned over and grabbed the bottle of wine sitting on the antique side table. She inhaled the aromas from it, looking for any signs it had turned and could be the cause of her odd experience. Fresh red cherries and dried fruit. The wine smelt fine.

She placed the bottle back and gave herself a little more time to calm down and refocus. She gently swept the Scarlatti sheets aside and scooped up the ancient Couperin pages, leaving the unnerving note calling for more on the ground. She straightened them, cracked the knuckles of her right hand by clenching her fist tightly, a move her mother and first dates usually found less than appealing, and placed her fingertips on the aging keys.

The same haunting music filled the small space again, only now, no keys or rogue notes chimed in on their own. Thunder clapped loudly outside as she played the piece, then a second time, stopping only to roll her shoulders and unclench her jaw a moment from the intense focus.

Reaching the end, the coda, for the last time, she kept the keys depressed as the singing of the last notes abated. Smiling to herself with satisfaction, she relaxed again.

CLAP! CLAP! CLAP! The noise resounded loudly within the small space, causing her to flinch sharply. A single cold bead of sweat ran down her forehead. She never took much stock in old ghost stories from the ancient town occupants. She just, well... didn't have a whole lot else to go on at the moment. Whoever, or whatever it was, at least she had a captive audience…

January 29, 2022 20:47

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