Prologue – The Locket
As he walked out of Atlanta Symphony Hall, trumpet case slung over his shoulder, Mike Braxton couldn’t help but walk with an air of confidence. He was currently the assistant principal trumpet in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and had just finished his first audition for the principal chair. Success would result in him succeeding his friend and mentor after his retirement next month. While he always had confidence in his abilities, he felt even more so today. It was almost as though he was possessed while on stage.
“Well, well,” Mike heard a voice call out. “Someone seems pleased with himself.”
He turned to find Darcy White, the principal bassoonist for the ASO, sitting on a bench outside Symphony Hall.
“Who? Me?” Mike responded with his trademark sarcasm.
Darcy laughed, shooting back, “Matter of fact, I haven’t seen that kind of swagger from you since that final jazz band concert senior year.”
Mike remembered that concert like it was yesterday. “Well, how could I not enjoy that? Closing out my final year at Clarke Mountain High by soloing Chuck Mangione’s Feels So Good? That’s livin’ the dream for any trumpet player worth his salt.” Sitting next to Darcy on the bench, he continued, “I presume you’re stalking me to find out how the audition went?”
She narrowed her eyes. “That was my original intent, but actions speak louder than words. Besides, even with you being the egotistical trumpet player I know you are, you never seem this confident without good reason. Think today was enough to get you into the final round next Friday?”
“I hope so,” Mike responded. “It’s impossible to say for sure, since this part was a blind audition; I’m nothing more than a number today. Still, I can say with all honesty that’s the best audition I’ve ever had in my life. If that doesn’t get me a shot at the principal chair, I don’t know what will.”
“Good enough for me. Oh, also wanted to make sure you knew, the High is having a sale of artwork today.” She pointed across the courtyard towards the High Museum of Art. “It’s only open to ASO musicians, so you never know. Even you might find something that catches your eye. Wanna come with?”
As artistic as Mike was, he never had been big on paintings. Still, he knew Darcy was into art of all kinds, and as easy as she had always been to hang with, he knew better than to turn down that request.
“Sure, why not? I’m done with work early today with the audition, so I’ll still be able to beat rush hour.”
They got up and started their walk across the courtyard toward the entrance to the museum. As he trailed a step behind her, Mike couldn’t help but notice that Darcy looked quite nice today. About 5’4” with short sandy-brown hair, she wore a pair of tan shorts, perfect for the spring weather of early May in Atlanta. The shorts went about halfway down her thigh, and were tight enough to show the curve of her petite ass. Her faded blue T-shirt hugged her frame, subtly drawing attention to her bust. Mike guessed she was about a B cup, though he never professed himself an expert.
Who said I never admire works of art?
Even with said admiration, Mike and Darcy’s relationship had always been a platonic one, going back all the way to high school. She had always had a boyfriend, but she and Mike still had a level of comfort with each other. They had always been able to give each other advice and criticism on all manner of topics, be it music, school, or even dating. Her ability to keep up with his dry, sarcastic wit, as well as throw it right back at him, didn’t hurt either. She had always said, “If someone didn’t know we were close friends, they’d think we hated each other!”
“Now, you’d better not be staring at my butt.” Darcy threw a look over her shoulder, flashing that mischievous grin she was famous around the orchestra for. She knew she had caught him red-handed.
“Of course not, wouldn’t think of it! It’s not like I’m an average guy who enjoys appreciating the artwork of the female form, particularly one with such a well-rounded and tiny butt. You must have me confused with someone else…” he rambled, playing into the banter they were enjoying.
“Good. After all, you know I’m on the rebound, and that could be considered taking advantage of poor, little-ole’ me!” Darcy responded, overdoing her Southern accent for the last four words.
Mike laughed. “First of all, you’re lucky I know you’re not leading me on, little missy,” he said, pretending to scold her with his index finger. “Second, I guess you’ve figured out that… well… I’m in the same situation.” Mike’s voice softened to a more serious tone.
Darcy’s frowned. “I heard you and Amanda broke up. Wasn’t she was your college sweetheart, though? Weren’t you gonna marry her?”
If she only knew how she had hit the nail square on the head. In the absolute worst day of Mike’s twenty-six years, Amanda had ended their four-year-long relationship via text message. This was followed by a complete refusal to answer his calls. To make matters worse, Mike got a call an hour later. The engagement ring he had purchased was ready for pickup, twisting the proverbial knife even further. In the six months since then, Mike had thrown himself into his work and music. His skills increased by leaps and bounds, resulting in a boost in respect from his coworkers.
The only difficulty he experienced in those six months was the inevitable return of contact from Amanda. She, of course, had realized the hastiness of her decision, and wanted him back. While Mike could have rubbed it in, or even refused to talk to her, he convinced himself to do the honorable thing. He told her, face-to-face, how much she had hurt him, and that he had no desire to get back together with her. He also said that he wanted her to learn from her decision and move on with her love life. It took some doing, but he convinced her that pining would be unhealthy not only for her, but also for the man she would end up spending her life with one day.
Yep, he had thought many times, sure would be fun to do the petty thing once in a while and stick her nose in it. That damn code of morality and trying to live a Godly life thing.
“You’re right, I was hers. And she decided all of a sudden that she wasn’t ready, and the only course of action was to end a relationship of almost four years. No biggie,” Mike responded, his words dripping with sarcasm. “In all seriousness, though, it’s for the best. I know what I want from here on, and I won’t be wasting time with someone who isn’t on the same page as me.”
Darcy’s grin returned. “So, no more Mr. College Playboy then?”
“HA! Please. Need I remind you that I’m the one always getting flack for not ‘playing the field’ more in college?” Mike shot back.
“Fair enough, fair enough,” Darcy conceded. “Pretty sure mine was for the best, too. Stephen never got physical, but his temper kept getting the best of him. Oh, and just because you noticed those things while we were still together does NOT give you permission to rub it in!” she interjected before Mike could claim the “I told you so.” He threw is hands up, trying to profess innocence, but Mike couldn’t suppress that smug grin of having nailed it.
By now, they had made it inside the museum and were beginning to browse the selections on sale that day. Most of the works were by local artists looking for connections and exposure, not to mention money; anything to ease the starving half of being a starving artist. While Darcy stopped at a booth full of abstract paintings, Mike strolled around the exhibit hall. His eye soon noticed a stunning woman working a table at the end of the room.
He tried his best not to ogle her as he approached her. She was tall, at least six feet, with dark curly hair extending halfway down her back. Her skin was a gorgeous shade of mocha brown, with a pair of blue skinny jeans and a snug black tank top accentuating her curvy figure. As he approached, she gave a warm smile and greeted him.
“Good afternoon, sir.” She spoke with a slight accent that Mike couldn’t quite place, maybe from somewhere in the Middle East, though he couldn’t be sure.
“Hi, how goes it today? My name’s Mike.” He extended his hand, and she shook it with a gentle grip.
“A pleasure, Mike. I’m Selena. I trust you are interested in my wares that I brought today?”
“Wares, eh?” Her wording confused him a bit. “Does that mean you’re selling more than artwork today?”
“Come and see for yourself,” she said with a wink.
Browsing her table, Mike saw that Selena had lots of hand made jewelry for sale. As he looked, she explained that her family had emigrated from Iran, coming to America when she was ten years old. Far from the typical girly-girl, she developed a particular aptitude for shop class and metalworking in high school. This led her to start up her jewelry business. As such, her Middle Eastern roots inspired almost all the pieces she had for sale.
“See anything you like? Perhaps something for a special lady in your life?”
Mike responded, “I’m afraid you’re about six months too late for that sales pitch.”
She studied him with intent for a few moments. “You were in love, weren’t you?”
Damn! She can see right through anything!
“Uh…” was all Mike could say in response.
She backtracked, “I’m so sorry! Please forgive my bluntness. I have always been quite good at reading emotions. I forget sometimes that there is an appropriate time and place for voicing such observations. It is a shortcoming of mine.”
“No, no, it’s fine. Matter of fact, you hit the nail on the head.” Mike related the story of Amanda’s break up text, the engagement ring, and the work he had to do to convince her to move on.
Selena stood slack-jawed for a few moments. “Wow… do you realize what control you had over her in that moment? She would have done anything you asked her to, all in the hopes of getting you back. Yet, you chose to act in the best interest of her long term future, rather than take advantage of her vulnerability.”
Mike hadn’t considered it from that perspective before, but she was correct. It would have been all too easy to exact revenge on Amanda. It frightened him that he, if only for a few brief moments, had considered starting down that path.
Selena’s voice turned soft, almost contemplative. “Mike, I have an heirloom that has been in my family for generations. When my mother gave it to me, she made it clear that I was only to give it to a person of, in her words, ‘outstanding moral fiber’. I’m sure she meant for this person to be the man who would be my husband, but for reasons I won’t bore you with, that is not a possibility for me anymore.”
She reached under the table for her backpack and pulled out a small brown box, appearing to be the right size for a necklace of some kind. Opening the box, she showed Mike a beautiful gold locket, antique, yet well preserved.
“How tempting it would have been for you to mistreat that poor girl. Yet the fact that you still acted as you did tells me all I need to know about your character. If anyone could ever meet my mother’s requirements, I have no doubt it’s you.”
She handed the locket to Mike as he began to examine it. It was a perfect circle, with raised inlays of either silver or white gold across the surface, almost resembling vines. In the center was a pale blue stone, so smooth and polished that Mike could see his own reflection in it. Mesmerized by its beauty, Mike snapped back to reality.
“Selena, this is obviously a treasured, precious item. I’m flattered, but I couldn’t possibly accept something as valuable as this.”
Selena responded, “Are you quite sure that you aren’t meant to own it? Look again.”
Mike examined the locket again, only to now see a faint glow emanating from the blue stone. “In all my life,” Selena continued, “I have never witnessed this before. If that isn’t a sign that my suspicions about you are correct, I don’t know what is.” With a smile, she slid the box the locket had been contained in across the table to him.
Once again entranced, Mike looked up and started to respond, “So you’ve seriously never seen…”
Nothing. No sign of Selena anywhere. The table in front of him, once covered with beautiful handmade jewelry, was now bare, save for the small brown box. Glancing at the locket again, Mike wondered what kind of elaborate set up this was. Did someone need to be congratulated for going to such great lengths to freak him out? Maybe he had imagined everything? No, that couldn’t be it. The locket in his hand was as real as could be.
At that moment, Mike’s phone went off, reminding him he’d better get on the road home to beat the Friday rush hour. He packed the locket and box in the outer pocket of his trumpet case and started for the parking garage across the courtyard. Along the way, Darcy joined him.
“Well, you look like you had fun,” Mike said.
“Yep, my mom and aunt both love abstract art, so I’m all set for their birthdays!” Darcy was always giddy after artsy events like this. “Ready to head to the parking deck?” Mike and Darcy always made a point of walking to their cars together, even in the middle of the day. It was still downtown Atlanta, and always better to be on the safe side.
“Sure thing. Oh, I forgot to ask, did you happen to see a girl selling jewelry at the far end of the gallery today?”
Darcy thought for a second, before responding. “Nope, I definitely didn’t see any jewelry for sale in there today. And if there was jewelry in there, I would definitely have found it!”
“Ok, wasn’t sure if I missed one of the tables or not.” Mike was definitely confused now. He couldn’t have imagined the entire encounter, could he?
As they walked through the parking deck, Darcy turned to him with a smirk on her face. “Ok, Braxton, million-dollar question time. How many hot dates you got set for this weekend?”
Mike rolled his eyes. She did this every Friday, even while he and Amanda were still together. “You just love seeing how nosey you can be, don’t you?”
“What can I say? It’s a gift,” Darcy responded with a giggle.
“Well there will definitely be no contact of the female variety this weekend,” Mike responded. “I should know tonight or tomorrow if I made the cut for the final audition in a week. If I made it, I plan to be a music hermit all week. Plenty of time for human contact after the final round.”
“Fair enough, Lord knows I was a freakin’ mess when I auditioned for the principal spot.”
Mike grinned. “If by ‘freakin’ mess’ you mean so hyped up on coffee and Red Bull that we started a petition to the Maestro to promote you just to level you out, I agree!”
Darcy hopped in her car, laughing and sticking her tongue out at Mike. “Good luck this weekend! Remember, practice hard, but don’t hardly practice!” With that she exited the garage. Mike cranked up his car, set the radio to WSB traffic, and took off for home.
The rest of Mike’s day was pretty mundane. Arriving home at his apartment, he decided to reward himself with an afternoon of Call of Duty. He never pretended to be any good at the game, but it was a hell of a lot of fun, and a great de-stressing tool. Few things felt as fulfilling as having random preteen kids yell and curse at you for destroying them online. Growing hungry, Mike bought a couple of cheese pizzas from Papa John’s with a coupon, settling in for a quiet evening of Batman. As he finished watching The Dark Knight Rises, Mike’s phone rang.
“Mike, Richard Spratt here.” It was the maestro of the ASO.
“Yes sir, good to hear from you.”
“You as well. Mike, I’ll get right to the point. I wanted to let you know that we’ve narrowed down the applicants for the principal trumpet spot to five, and I’m pleased to tell you that you are in.”
Fist pumping and victory dancing in silence, Mike did his best to remain professional. “That’s awesome news. This opportunity means the world to me. Thank you so much.”
“Well, you earned it. Rest up, and practice hard this week. The audition this Friday will be in front of a live panel consisting of the concertmaster, one guest panelist, and myself. We will let you know who that guest panelist will be once we confirm their availability, as well as your specific audition time. Also, be prepared for a short interview with some personnel situations you might encounter in the principal job. Now, any questions I can answer for you?”
“No sir,” Mike responded. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”
“Excellent. Take care, Mike. Bye-bye.”
Mike was so keyed up that he could hardly contain himself. Still, he resisted the urge to text everyone he knew the news. He had to remind himself of the Academy Awards. It’s only a nomination.
Knowing she would murder him if he didn’t at least keep her up to date, he texted Darcy the good news; she responded with her usual mash up of emojis. After promising to hang with her on Saturday, whether in victory or in mourning, Mike finally felt his emotions crash in a wave of exhaustion. He made his way to his bedroom and stripped down to his boxer briefs before moving to relax in bed. Coming out of his closet, he paused at his tall floor mirror. While he was not normally one to stare at his reflection, he felt the strange urge to do so tonight.
Mike couldn’t help but laugh at what he saw. Blonde haired, blue eyed, white, Christian male. How original. Hell, his first college roommate, a nerdy Jewish kid named Mitch, had dubbed him “Hitler’s poster boy.” Mike took it in stride, though. Mitch had always said that he was glad Hitler took over Germany. If he hadn’t, his grandparents would never have fled the country, falling in love during the voyage to America. Mitch’s motto was simple: perspective.
Though Mike was not tall, only 5’5”, his strong, broad shoulders complemented his figure quite well. His body, on the other hand, was… average. Not buff, nor overweight. Still, by far his best features were his eyes and hair. His eyes were a much brighter blue as a child, but even the lighter blue they had settled on was noticeable. It was a near certainty that any girl he dated would comment at some point on how they loved his eyes. He kept his light blonde hair cut short in an Ivy League style and framed it with a pair of wire rimmed glasses. All things considered, Mike felt pretty confident in how he could describe himself. Not bad… not bad at all.
As annoying as it was to admit she was right, Darcy definitely had a point about Mike’s love life. He knew it was time to get back out there. Surely he could actually find a smart, sweet girl with no patience for drama or mind games. Shaking his head, he pushed those thoughts out of his mind.
Focus, Braxton. Audition of a lifetime in one week.
Flipping the TV on to his favorite cable news network, Mike was about to crawl into bed when he glanced at his trumpet case in the corner. Remembering the strange locket from earlier today, he went to dig it and the brown box it came in out of his case. He was about to examine the locket, when he noticed the corner of a small piece of paper sticking out of the box. Opening it up, he discovered a hand written note.
Hello, Mike. I do not know if you have attempted to open the locket yet, but please know that it will only open if you are in fact the kind of person I suspect you are. For a man who knows God, as I can tell you do, the solution to this puzzle should be rather easy to discover. I wish you luck and happiness in all your life’s endeavors. Sincerely, Selena.
Holy crap, Mike thought.
He hadn’t imagined it. Somehow, that entire encounter today had been real. Now invested in the meaning of Selena’s note, Mike placed the box on his nightstand and switched off the TV so he could focus. Sitting up in his bed, he reached for the locket and began to inspect it.
“Let’s see if we can’t figure out what you are, my little friend…” Mike said, in his best Obi-Wan Kenobi voice. As he held it in his hand, the blue stone in the center started glowing, as it had that afternoon. And yet, even with the stone’s brilliant glow, Mike still could not open the locket. It was as if it was welded shut from the inside.
Mike turned the locket over, inspecting the smooth plain back piece. He began running his index finger over the surface and edges, feeling for any sort of switch or clasp that might allow it to open. At this point, he didn’t care if the locket contained anything or not. His gut told him that it would be worth it, if only to find the solution to the puzzle itself.
As his finger moved around to the front side of the locket, Mike began to notice a faint outline of some sort on the back piece. After a few attempts to replicate it, he soon discovered that placing his finger on the blue stone was the trigger to those outlines. Pressing down it, he was able to make out a series of letters on the back of the locket.
Curiouser and curiouser, Mike mused, pondering this revelation.
He made a note of the letters in his phone, trying to think what they could mean. Reading Selena’s note again, he took notice of her mention of knowing God.
Mike reached into his nightstand for his King James Bible. Though he preferred his Common English Bible, there was something that felt right about having this version by his bedside. Mike flipped through the pages until he found his target: 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 52.
Maybe I just need to read it out loud? Could it be that simple?
Clearing his throat, Mike read, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
Nothing. No movement or glowing from the locket.
Mike tried reading the passage again, this time with his finger pressed on the stone, but still no results. He pondered over and over again. Why would the locket direct him to this passage if reading the passage itself does nothing? There had to be some other significance.
Glancing again at his trumpet case, Mike had one idea so farfetched that it just might work. The text of this verse was used in Handel’s Messiah during an extended trumpet solo entitled The Trumpet Shall Sound. Additionally, Mike was quite familiar with this piece, having recently played it for Easter at his local church. Picking up his trumpet, Mike placed a practice mute in the bell, muffling the sound to a whisper.
No need to piss off the neighbors.
After playing a few warm-up notes, Mike focused for a moment, remembering the opening to the song. Soon, he began the extended fanfare that started the piece. As he approached the next section, he noticed the locket was glowing once more. This time, the glow extended from the stone and into the vine-like inlays. Startled, he stopped playing, causing the glow to vanish.
Smiling to himself, Mike knew he was close to the answer. As he began again from the beginning, the locket, sure enough, started glowing again. Losing himself in the music and hearing the vocalist in his head as he played, he had almost forgotten all about the locket by the end. As he laid his trumpet back in the case, the locket was now shining brighter than ever before, almost as if it was charged with energy. After climbing back into bed, he again took the object in his hand, feeling a strange warmth engulf his entire body. He placed his finger once more on the center stone, causing the glow to vanish. He then heard an audible click, signaling that he had finally solved the puzzle.
His hands trembled as he began to pry open the locket. There at first did not appear to be anything inside. Yet upon further inspection, he could see that the stone on the front was a complete sphere, with the back half extending into the locket. Touching the backside of the stone, it suddenly released a puff of blue smoke into his face.
He coughed and hacked as his vision became blurry, dropping the locket onto the floor. Trying to keep his wits about him, he reached to shut the locket before anything else happened, but to no avail. The last thing he remembered before passing out was the cloud of smoke appearing to form into something solid...