Being a student is a time when young men and women learn the delicate balance between work and play. For music students there are particularly high expectations, especially for Vincent Baines whose mother was a first chair cellist on one of the world’s leading orchestras. This orchestra happened to be under the direction of his father – Fredrick Baines – also a prominent musician.
At the age of nineteen Vincent abandoned the travelling life of the orchestra that he had become so used to and joined Filton University to complete his studies. He had been a concert pianist by the time he was twelve so the qualifications were merely a formality, but one his parents insisted he had. He adored the twinkling ivory of the piano but the instrument he was drawn to most was the violin. The violin understood how cruel the world could be and in turn could turn its sobs into the most beautiful sounds.
Normally a stickler for punctuality, a conference with the head of the school made Vincent late for his first class. He rushed across the courtyard clutching his violin in a battered old case he had been given for his tenth birthday. Too busy reading the paper which stated ‘Professor Tim Heath – Room 106’ he almost collided with the door to the main building. The receptionist saw him struggling with the case so rushed over to help him by holding the door open.
“Thank you,” Vincent gasped as he pushed indoors.
The receptionist – an older woman with sparkling silver hair and a gentle face – let the door go when the student was free of its grasp. “You better hurry. Professor Heath’s class has already started.”
Vincent made a dash to the right. “Young man!” the receptionist called after him. “Room 106 is that way,” she said pointing to the hall on the left.
Vincent quickly changed direction and made his way to class.
He could hear instruments warming up. A booming, authoritative voice called over them. Vincent pushed the door open, hoping to slip in unnoticed.
Professor Heath, dressed all in black but for a loose hanging emerald tie, was holding his large hands in the air.
“This is our first day so let’s hope we don’t continue to sound like a cat sent through a mincer, tale first.” He turned and his owl like gaze fell upon Vincent. “Ah our star pupil!”
He gripped Vincent’s free arm and pulled him closer. “Listen up everyone!” he boomed again. The warming instruments fell silent. The eyes of the entire class darted their way towards the new arrival. “This is Vincent Baines.” Professor Heath stopped. “You are Vincent Baines right?” Vincent nodded so the teacher continued. “He is the son of the great Fredrick Baines. If you ever want to hear what good music sounds like, listen to his recordings.”
After having successfully alienated Vincent from his classmates he pushed him towards them. Their puzzled looks turned to derisive stares. Vincent chose to sit next to a fellow violinist, a raven-haired girl in a black t-shirt and torn jeans. She was holding a shining, black violin with red trimming.
“I’m a big fan of your dad,” she said as Vincent took a seat and began to fish his own violin from the case. “He’s one of the best,” she added.
“He’s something else alright,” Vincent agreed.
By the time the hour was over, Vincent had learned that the girls name was Ruth Browning. She had attended Filton because it was the as far away as she could get from her home life. From her t-shirt and worn jeans Vincent assumed she had spent what little money she had on tuition and her beautiful violin. Her long hair was hanging loosely. It seemed likely she had no real female role model around to show her anything more elaborate. This was probably also the reason why her eyes were shadowed heavily in black eyeliner whilst the rest of her face was void of make-up.
From an early age Vincent had been a keen observer. He found that more could be revealed about a person in their mannerisms, dress and general demeanour than they would be willing tell.
Observing her Vincent was able to decipher her life story without her saying anything. She was a forgotten child with a drunkard father – no doubt abusive. She had never had any proper parental guidance so she was fiercely independent. She was closed off but that passiveness in her manner showed how frightened she was.
Vincent and Ruth became fast friends. They were equally as talented and equally as bemused by their classmates. Together they found a common bond. Ruth had a history. It was written on her face. Vincent was drawn to it. He very much wanted to read her story.
Time moved on like the unstoppable force that it is. Attending classes became routine.
“I gotta run,” said Ruth when the regular Tuesday afternoon class had ended. She kissed Vincent’s left cheek and slipped a note into his right hand. “That’s my address. I’ll see you tonight,” she explained before disappearing into the crowd and away to parts unknown for an appointment that she seemed sketchy on explaining. Ruth wasn’t an affectionate girl but she kissed people a lot. Most people keep a safe, professional distance but Ruth wouldn’t shake hands, she always kissed. The first day they had met, Vincent bought lunch for them both and Ruth hadn’t said ‘thanks’ like most people would, instead she pressed her lips against his. She had even kissed Professor Heath when he had given her some one on one instruction. He was of course uncomfortable with his but Ruth thought nothing of it. It was never with affection, it was almost like a chore she felt was necessary.
Vincent tucked the address into his violin case without looking at it. It wasn’t until he got back to his dormitory room he finally read it. From the moment he met her he knew she wasn’t a Filton girl. The way she wore her hair, the quality of her clothing were all giveaways but what stood out the most for Vincent was the subtle way she would observe her surroundings. It was like she was seeing everything for the first time. There was a certain admiration in her eyes for the décor. Filton girls expected nothing less.
Ruth lived in South West of Coldford, the nearest city to Filton, in an area known as the Shanties. Vincent took a bus from Filton Main Street which happily stopped outside a coffee shop he had decided was his favourite upon arrival.
Two older women had perched themselves at the front of the bus and were a little disgruntled as Vincent swung his violin case round, trying to pass them whilst still balancing his coffee in his other hand. He knocked the pink hat off one and narrowly missed the face of the other. They both shot deathly stares at him. Vincent smiled politely and said, “So sorry,” but in his mind he was groaning, ‘sit somewhere other than up the driver’s arse and maybe I’ll be able to pass you, old bags.’
The journey into the city took about twenty minutes. A few passengers had alighted then disappeared again except the whining old witches at the front. As Vincent passed them again, holding his violin like a javelin stick he could still feel their derision. They stayed on the bus, probably heading up to the business district in the north of the city. People with that kind of attitude always came from the business district.
He followed Ruth’s directions to a run-down apartment building. He checked the address again but he already knew he was in the right place. There was a buzzer entry system but when he pushed the button for Ruth’s apartment it made no noise. He tried the door and found he could push it open.
He climbed to the third floor where Ruth lived. The hallway was littered, the lights were blinking, ready to surrender their life to the darkness. The air was thick with the smell of urine.
Ruth’s door was painted a sharp red unlike the flaky brown of the others. Vincent knocked twice heavily then instinctively turned towards the stairs to watch for anyone coming.
The door was pulled open with a loud creak and Ruth greeted him.
He held his violin up. “Ready to practice?” he asked.
Ruth had tied her hair up in a red bandanna. She pulled the door open wider and let him in. “Did you find the place easy enough?” she asked as Vincent followed her down a narrow little corridor decorated with hand drawn pictures of trees, strange shadowy figures and the letter S. She seemed quite keen on the letter S.
The single room that served as both lounge and bedroom was cluttered with pizza boxes and takeaway containers. More drawings covered light purple walls. On her magazine covered coffee table she had sat three vanilla scented pillar candles.
“I’m sure you are used to much better than this,” she commented when she noticed Vincent looking around.
“Its home isn’t it?” he replied. Vincent had travelled so much as a child with his parents and the orchestra he never had anywhere he felt he could truly call home. What came before the Baines’ adopted him he never thought about.
Vincent cleared a space on the sofa and sat his violin case down. Removing the violin and bow he settled into his playing stance, perched at the edge of his seat.
Ruth’s violin was sat against the wall. She lifted it, rummaged a little while for her bow and sat beside Vincent.
They played together through melodies they were learning in class. Ruth became so absorbed in her playing Vincent stopped to watch her. Her composure, the timeless beauty of her face contrasted with the rustic surroundings of her apartment. Her playing was perfection, her composure statuesque. There were violinists in his parent’s orchestra that didn’t have such natural and raw talent.
She stopped suddenly. She flicked open her black shadowed eyelids and smiled when she noticed him staring at her. “Rendered you speechless have I?” she quipped.
“You are very good,” he said, the simple words failing to reach the true heights of his admiration. “How long have you been playing?”
Ruth sat her violin down. She snatched up an ashtray, took the half-smoked cigarette from within the ashes and placed it between her lips. It must have tasted fowl, Vincent surmised. Judging by the several other half-smoked cigarettes in the glass tray – cut crudely in the shape of a leaf – she was in the habit of leaving them. She was a lonely girl so she needed something to go back to, although she would never admit it.
“My gran gave me a violin when I was six. One of her boyfriends had left it behind. My dad got drunk one night and smashed it up. He felt bad about it the next day so he bought me a new one. It was probably the most expensive thing in the whole house. He made sure I learned if he was shelling out money on what he thought was a useless instrument.”
When Ruth spoke of her father she always cleared her throat and clouded her voice in a nostalgic tone, like she was recalling a horrid memory. It was very subtle; most people wouldn’t notice but most people didn’t pay as much attention as Vincent. Because of those minor changes in vocals Vincent could deduce that her parents were dead. The gran had been something of an aside thought in her anecdote. She was probably dead too. Mrs Baines had always admired how observant her little boy was. Vincent couldn’t understand why others couldn’t see the world as well as he could.
They played on together for a little while longer. Around eight Ruth decided to call it a night.
“Are you sure?” Vincent pushed. “I’m in no rush.”
Ruth shrugged her shoulders. When it reached six o’clock she had started to become edgy. She kept glancing at the clock. She wanted Vincent to leave but he wasn’t ready to tear himself away. He could tell she was in trouble. You didn’t need Vincent’s special intuition to be able to deduce that.
“Are you alright?” he asked. She was shaking a little as she leaned her violin back against the wall again. There was a case beside the weathered grey sofa but she didn’t lock her instrument away. “You should keep your violin in a case. It’s such a nice one you have it would seem a shame for it to get damaged.”
“Don’t touch that!” Ruth cried but it was too late. The latch on the case was broken. It swung open and spilled out hundreds of photographs.
“I’m so sorry,” said Vincent.
Ruth rushed to scoop them up but not before Vincent caught sight a small girl. She had dark hair like Ruth’s. Her eyes were wide and frightened. She was reaching out to the camera. She had such similarity to Ruth that one might have mistaken her for Ruth as a child if it were not for the mole that Ruth had on her left cheek that was absent from the little girl.
“I’m sorry,” Vincent said again as Ruth closed the case over with some ferocity.
“You had better go,” she said. “That bus back to Filton can be a bitch.”
Vincent packed his violin away. He struggled to remove his gaze from where the photos were hiding. Ruth had a secret that even Vincent couldn’t deduce.
The girl in the photograph had been in distress but who was she? Why was Ruth keeping those photographs? Vincent wandered into the chill of the evening air. The kiss she had given him in the doorway was still buzzing on his forehead. She wanted his help. He knew it. Even if she hadn’t said it she wanted him to stick around. Even if she didn’t realise it she didn’t him to leave.
There was a small park area just across from the apartment building. It was the local authority’s way of appeasing their conscience, knowing that the children living in the most deprived areas of the city had a broken swing or rusted chute to play on. At least then they could have some semblance of happiness. What more could they want? There were two benches. One was bathed in the lamplight the other cast in shadow. Vincent chose the dark. It looked directly onto Ruth’s apartment. Vincent watched for about an hour. He pulled the collar of his coat up as the temperature dropped rapidly. Finally, the light from Ruth’s lounge went out. Minutes later she appeared in the doorway with a cigarette between her lips and pulling the door over as tightly as she could. She placed both hands in the pocket of her denim coat and disappeared up the street at an above average speed.
Vincent wondered if she wanted him to follow her. Probably, but not that night. The bus to Filton was a bitch after all.
Ruth didn’t come to class the following day. Vincent decided he would visit her that evening and make sure she was okay. He tried calling the number she had given him several times but there was no answer. The first time her answering machine clicked on with a generic voice that came with the phone. He hesitated and hung up. Then he convinced himself she would have wanted to hear from him so he called again.
“Ruth? It’s Vincent. Just wanted to make sure you were okay. Call me.”
The classes broke for a lunch hour. Since Ruth was absent Vincent sat out front alone. The air was dry but icy. He knew he was hungry but he couldn’t eat. His mind was too consumed with thoughts of Ruth. He stood up from the bench outside the music building. He couldn’t contemplate an afternoon of practice when he knew Ruth was in trouble.
Another young student took his place on the bench. “Vincent Baines right?” he piped up.
Vincent looked back over his shoulder. He was a self-assured man with long legs crossed casually and the wide grin of the cat who didn’t just get the cream but devoured it. Vincent didn’t like him.
“Yes,” replied the musician coolly. He really wanted to go to Ruth’s house and check on her. If she wasn’t there he could get in somehow and have a look at the photos of the scared little girl. Just to be sure she was okay. She needed him.
“You’re friends with Ruth Browning right?” The young man on Vincent’s bench added, “She’s bad news bro.”
Vincent’s teeth gritted at the use of the term ‘bro’. He hated when people used such colloquial terms. It was so boorish.
Vincent raised his chin. “I’m quite sure I don’t know what you’re talking about and I’m not your bro.”
The detest washed over the young man. He was unfazed but his Cheshire Cat smile faded. “Just be careful having her as a girlfriend.” He was trying to be reasonable now that he realised over familiarity with the musician was not working.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Vincent volunteered which was more information than he would normally volunteer. “It’s not like that.”
“So you’re gay then?” he called after Vincent who tried to walk away from him.
He was making Vincent angry. Vincent didn’t like to get angry. It came from before his adoption by the Baines’. He wasn’t allowed to be angry. This young man was making him very angry indeed.
“That’s none of your business!” Vincent spat. It wasn’t unlike him to become so temperamental. He was a calm young man, a good boy. He was always more concerned for others than himself.
The young man on the bench raised his hands. “I’m sorry, but she was with one of my friends. He wasn’t that interested in her so when he got up to leave …”
“That’s despicable form treating her that way,” Vincent snarled. He was starting to feel angrier than he ever did as a boy.
The young man didn’t seem too concerned by this.
“Well she thought so too. She went crazy. She picked up a kitchen knife and cut him pretty bad. His hands were shredded, his arms needed stitches and his chest is scarred.”
Vincent calmed down a bit at this image. It even brought a smile to his lips.
“Well, that’ll teach him.”
This did seem to stir something in the bench warmer. “She didn’t say no or anything. She knew exactly what she was doing. He didn’t know what more she could possibly want from him.”
Vincent let a snort of derision flare from his nostrils. He had to leave then. He had to catch the bus to the city. He had to check on Ruth.
The bus to The Shanties didn’t seem as long as the last time. Vincent left his violin back at the university so manoeuvring was much easier. It was still early in the afternoon so there was only one other passenger aboard – a woman in her thirties who kept her suede hat on. She spent most of the journey staring from the window.
Vincent rushed to Ruth’s apartment. He wasn’t exactly sure what he would find but his heart was racing. On the first stairway of the apartment building an old man was stretched out. Vincent couldn’t decide if he was drunk, drugged or both. His chest was rising and falling steadily so Vincent stepped over him.
He knocked on Ruth’s door. There was no answer. He pushed open the letter box. He could see down her hallway into the lounge but there was no sign of life within.
Vincent pushed the door open. Ruth never locked her door. She told him so. She claimed that apart from her violin there was nothing worth stealing. As Vincent let himself in and crossed the threshold of her home he thought of how dangerous a philosophy it was. Any weirdo could come wandering in.
In the lounge the violin wasn’t standing in the corner. The case, however, was on the floor. It had been thrown open – empty.
There was a scorched box by the window. Vincent’s instincts told him that the key to Ruth’s troubles lay in that box. He pulled it open and there were the photographs. Some of them had been burnt beyond recognition but some were still intact. He lifted one and examined it closer. It was the little girl he had seen before. Her eyes still staring, terrified. Her hands were tied behind her back. Her mouth was gagged with a piece of black cloth. The ground she was sat on was filthy, the lighting very low.
“What are you doing?” a voice behind him dragged him back to reality. He hadn’t heard Ruth come home.
Vincent dropped the photograph. “I was worried about you. I thought you might be in trouble. I wanted to help you.”
Ruth was eerily calm, her face stoic, her lips pinned in an expressionless clench. “It’s too late to help me,” she said. “It’s over.”
“The little girl was your sister wasn’t she.”
“Yes,” she answered simply. “And my daughter.”
“Who did that to her? Who killed her?” Vincent didn’t have to look at any more photos to know what grisly end the child had met.
“I did,” Ruth said. She gripped the collar of Vincent’s white shirt. “I told the police everything today. I couldn’t go on pretending. They’re not far behind and you don’t want to be here when they arrive.”
“Ruthy! Ruthy!” she squealed. “Please let me go! I’m scared Ruthy!”
Dad was a drunk and mum was a stranger she could pass on the street without knowing. Dad was gone now and Ruth was expected to look after the little brat kid she didn’t even like. Ruthy couldn’t take it anymore.
“We’re going on a trip,” she told the child at first. She gripped Ruth’s hand with dumb naivete. She even skipped ahead when they were finally on the forest path. Her red coat was like a siren in the distance. An old house began to emerge. It had once belonged to Ruth’s gran. It had long since been abandoned. No one ever went there.
Ruth had the only key. She opened the door, wincing at the stench of dampness.
“I don’t want to stay here,” complained the little girl. “I want to go home.”
“You don’t have a home,” Ruth scolded. “You are just living in mine.”
The house was overrun with wicker furniture. Ruth took a seat by the window. She used to enjoy reading in that window chair as a child. This house had been the only place in her miserable existence that felt like home to her. The little girl didn’t realise how lucky she was to be in such a place. She didn’t have to contend with half of what Ruthy did. She didn’t have the responsibility, the horrid memories. Even the violin that she loved so much was a constant reminder of her father’s sick, twisted shame. The little one wouldn’t have to endure that would she?
Ruth grabbed the little girl by the arm and pulled her off amidst sobs and uncertain, terrified screams.
She kept her alive for a little while but the constant visits became too much. Ruth had to take care of herself. She was practically a child too This had been done to her. She was a victim. She didn’t ask for a child. The people who were supposed to protect her turned a blind eye.
She used an axe. She chopped the girl into as little pieces as she could manage. She put the remains through the wood chipper. She didn’t think she would get away with it. She didn’t care.
Vincent took the box out of the policewoman’s hands and laid it on his desk.
“It’s just a few things that Ruth wanted you to have. She was quite adamant.”
Vincent shuddered. “The photographs?”
“We’ve kept what was left of them in evidence. There’s nothing of real value or importance but she insisted.”
“Thank you officer,” said Vincent as he closed the door behind her. ‘The police can be such busybodies’ he muttered to himself. If they had done their jobs in the first place Ruth would not have suffered the childhood that she did and she would still be playing her beautiful violin. It wasn’t her fault her father was a monster. The police were the ones who failed. If they had stopped him the little girl wouldn’t have been murdered.
Inside the box were some sheets of music from a violin concerto Ruth had been writing. On it, in a very careful hand, was note stating, ‘I hope you can play this for me.’
Underneath it all was a key. It was old, slightly rusted. It had a green tag hanging from it. It was the key to the house that Ruth had kept the sister she had given birth to.
That day in class no one had asked for her. No one had spoken of her. Professor Heath carried on as though she had never been there.
“I have written some music you might like to look at,” said Vincent, passing Ruth’s incomplete concerto.
“Amazing work!” Professor Heath gasped as his eyes darted over the notes. “Your parents’ talent has definitely rubbed off.” He beamed a wide smile.
Vincent thought about telling him that it was actually Ruth’s work but he would wait until they played it, filled it with praise then he would tell them the real composer.
Later that evening, after class Vincent went to visit Ruth. She was being held in Coldford in a women’s prison called the Monte Fort. He was sat staring at his own reflection in the glass separating the free from the imprisoned. A door opened on the other side. Ruth was ushered in by a brutish woman officer. Ruth’s thick black hair had been shaved off. She was sporting bruises where her eye liner normally was. She was sat down in front of him and the officer.
Vincent lifted the telephone receiver beside him. Unconsciously the clasped it between two fingers and kept it as far away from his face as possible.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Very well,” she said. “It’s like a big party in here.” She smiled through her sarcasm.
“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” Vincent said sincerely.
Ruth was still smiling. “You would be the only one.”
“Why did you give me that key?” he asked.
Ruth took a quick glance behind her at the officer and lowered her voice so she wouldn’t hear. “I wanted you to have it.”
“What about the police? It’s going to implicate me in your crime.” Vincent followed suit and lowered his voice too.
“They don’t know that’s where I kept the little bitch. They just know I murdered her and that’s all they care about. They’ll never know about it.”
“What do you want me to do with it?”
“It’s always been a great place to lock away your problems,” Ruth’s smile widened. “That is my gift to you.”
The officer looked at her thick silver watch. She stepped forward and pulled Ruth back from the window. Ruth dropped the receiver. Waved as she was escorted from the room.
Ever since he was a small boy Vincent longed for somewhere he could lock his problems away. They followed him around like an over eager pup. Now they didn’t have to thanks to Ruth and her house in the middle of nowhere that even the police had no interest in.
Click HERE to read Vivika Widow’s hit thriller Maestro and see where Vincent’s journey leads him.