(Char­ac­ter sketch and back­ground for a Dave Gross Call of Cthul­hu cam­paign: Hor­ror on the Ori­ent Express, 2016)

The club was lively; a typ­ic­al Thursday even­ing at our usu­al retreat in Birm­ing­ham. When our sched­ules per­mit­ted, we traveled north to escape the din and bluster of Lon­don as the week ended. Benny Peyton’s Jazz Kings were tak­ing a break after con­clud­ing their first set. They were glorious.

Stand­ing, I drew the atten­tion of my friends seated at the table. “Tonight,” I said, “I  am reminded that ten years ago to the day, I had a most extraordin­ary encounter with a most extraordin­ary man, someone who’s assist­ance and spon­sor­ship shaped me into this prod­ig­al Peacock!”

Chuckles respon­ded to my state­ment — few hadn’t heard this story before.

“As you all know, my fam­ily came to this coun­try from Warsaw when I was a youth. My fath­er accep­ted a pos­i­tion teach­ing music with an academy in Kens­ing­ton, and we estab­lished a mod­est house nearby.” 

“Of course, he also tutored me in the music­al arts. And it is because of him, and this Mys­ter­i­ous Gen­tle­man, that I am,  some say — and I’ll repeat for those who have not heard it clearly — it is because of them that I am this Mag­ni­fi­cent Piano Prodigy!” 

Guf­faws, and boos were the response I expec­ted – I was not dis­ap­poin­ted. I could play my friends as well as I could play a Steinway.

“Being from the old coun­try, my fath­er had a few old-coun­try beliefs. The most amaz­ing of which was that he believed there were ghostly creatures who could con­trol anim­als and oth­er liv­ing things, even the minds and bod­ies of humans!”

I paused, tak­ing a sip of my gin ton­ic and enjoy­ing the com­pany of friends.

“Of course, our fam­ily, my sis­ters and I, hoped he would leave those ideas back in old Poland, and not embar­rass us among our new friends and neigh­bours.” 

“But what amaz­ing story would I have to tell if that were the case?”

“No, in the spring of my thir­teenth year, my fath­er brought home a col­league. Someone else who was inter­ested in my father’s tales of the unbe­liev­able. My fath­er brought home Pro­fess­or Worth!”

More boos and laughter from the table. Some of my friends had been stu­dents of Pro­fess­or Worth and con­sidered his alco­hol-fueled lec­tures most enter­tain­ing if less cred­ible. Why the Uni­ver­sity retained the 70 year-old archae­olo­gist as a teach­er was a won­der we shared.

I con­tin­ued the tale


—–

I had returned home from a typ­ic­al day of unsu­per­vised study and piano prac­tice at the uni­ver­sity aud­it­or­i­um. Hav­ing a fath­er on the fac­ulty gran­ted a priv­ilege unavail­able to oth­er thir­teen-year-old stu­dents; access to the university’s Stein­way & Sons grand piano — one from the Ham­burg fact­ory, not an Amer­ic­an model.

Enter­ing the foy­er, I heard my fath­er and anoth­er man in con­ver­sa­tion. 

My home is where I met Pro­fess­or Worth, who was listen­ing to a descrip­tion of the Janu­ary Upris­ing, one of my fath­ers favour­ite sub­jects. I joined the two men.

“As you know, the Rus­si­an Empire was weakened at that time, hav­ing lost the Crimean war.”

“Yet,” he con­tin­ued, “in Poland, they still had iron-control.”

“So why the rebel­lion in 1863?” asked Pro­fess­or Worth. “The his­tor­ic­al doc­u­ments I’ve seen all refer to a move­ment to avoid con­scrip­tion. You were there, is this not fact?”

“Yes, yes,” my fath­er replied, “it is fact, but it is not  all the facts.” 

My fath­er rose from his seat by the fire and began to pace as he spoke, “But what you’ll hear next isn’t part of any offi­cial history.”

“Among the rebels there was a group of men who not only hid in the forest to avoid the impress­ment patrols, but they actu­ally con­duc­ted patrols of their own into the Rus­si­an camps. That much is known in the offi­cial his­tor­ies,” he said. 

“That much is known to the record. What I say next is not.”

“They called them­selves Wait­ing Fol­low­ers. And they recog­nized each oth­er by a simple star shaped tattoo.”

“There are stor­ies of Rus­si­an officers mys­ter­i­ously dying in their beds, not a mark on the bod­ies except for a star-shaped sym­bol carved into their flesh. They had the most hor­rif­ic expres­sions — their faces grot­esquely stretched and malformed.”

“It is said that the star-shaped tat­too of the Wait­ing Fol­low­ers and the star-shape carved into the dead are identic­al,” my fath­er paused.

“Oth­er stor­ies were told of Rus­si­an scout patrols who nev­er returned. Search patrols often found no sign of the miss­ing scouts,” he continued.

“Except once, they did find a miss­ing scout patrol. Miss­ing for three days, they were dis­covered stand­ing in a small clear­ing deep with­in the loc­al forest, a half-day march from the city.”

“Every man was stand­ing in per­fect form­a­tion, rigid, unmov­ing, at atten­tion. It was as if they were wait­ing for orders. Yet every man was dead.”

“Again, not a mark on their bod­ies save for the carved star-shaped sym­bol. They were dead.”

My fath­er con­cluded his extraordin­ary tale, “In the end, the Janu­ary Upris­ing was crushed with­in a year. Repris­als were harsh; hun­dreds were executed and thou­sands exiled to Siber­ia and oth­er remote regions.”

“And the Wait­ing Fol­low­ers van­ished, as if they nev­er existed.”

Pro­fess­or Worth had a few ques­tions about par­tic­u­lar details, which my fath­er answered, provid­ing such detail as he was cap­able. 

My fath­er admit­ted that at the time of the Janu­ary Upris­ing, he was sym­path­et­ic to the Rus­si­an Empire, and had friends who had com­manded Scout Patrols.

I was thun­der­struck as my fath­er had nev­er con­fided such things to me or my sis­ters. As Poles liv­ing in Lon­don it wasn’t prudent to admit past sym­path­ies to the Rus­si­an Empire.

The pro­fess­or then did a curi­ous thing. Reach­ing into his valise, he extrac­ted a small clay disc and showed it to my fath­er, say­ing, “a few years back I found a shape, and oth­ers, carved into pil­lar form­a­tions we were excav­at­ing in Per­sia”. “I pressed soft clay into the carving and brought this relief disc back to con­tin­ue research.”

It was my father’s turn to be thun­der­struck. “That shape,” he said. “That is the the five-poin­ted star of the Wait­ing Followers”.

—–

My friends sat silent amongst the back­ground din of the club. They’d heard the ghost stor­ies before, but not the detail regard­ing my fam­ily con­nec­tion to Pro­fess­or Worth.

“So, my friends, to bring this cir­cuit­ous tale to a sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sion, my fath­er and Pro­fess­or Worth con­tin­ued their con­ver­sa­tions about the Wait­ing Fol­low­ers. Over the course of many years,” I paused. “Actu­ally they became fast friends.”

“Pro­fess­or Worth attemp­ted to research fur­ther into the miss­ing scout patrols and the Wait­ing Fol­low­ers, but wasn’t able to pro­duce any tan­gible res­ults, only hearsay and speculation.”

“Upon my fath­ers passing, Pro­fess­or Worth sup­por­ted my applic­a­tion to the Uni­ver­sity, where I was able to con­tin­ue my edu­ca­tion on that very fine Stein­way and Sons piano.” 

“But, unfor­tu­nately, Pro­fess­or Worth was nev­er able to veri­fy my father’s story.”

“So now you know the full of it, regard­ing how I became an amaz­ing, some would say prodi­gious, pianist.”

Chuckles again. And the band was get­ting ready to start their next set.

“And of course, it goes without say­ing — though I’ll say it any­way — a prodi­gious pian­ist of my cal­ibre, is entitled to a little show of ego, a little brush of boast­ful­ness, from time to time.” 

I raised my glass, “Thank you, my friends, for your for­bear­ance of my foibles. I salute you.”

And as if there was a cue, the band star­ted playing.


Leopold ‘Leo’ Bashinski – Musician

Musi­cian

 May per­form in an orches­tra, group or solo, with any instru­ment you care to think of. Get­ting noticed is hard and then get­ting a record­ing con­tract is also dif­fi­cult. Most musi­cians are poor and do not get noticed, eking a liv­ing by play­ing small ven­ues as often as they can. A for­tu­nate few might get reg­u­lar work, such as play­ing a piano in a bar or hotel or with­in a city orches­tra. For the minor­ity, great suc­cess and wealth can be found by being in the right place at the right time, plus hav­ing a modic­um of talent.

The 1920s is, of course, the Jazz Age, and musi­cians work in small com­bos and dance orches­tras in large and medi­um sized cit­ies and towns across Amer­ica. A few musi­cians liv­ing in large cit­ies like Chica­go or New York find steady work in their homet­own, but most spend sig­ni­fic­ant amounts of time on the road, tour­ing either by bus, by auto­mobile or by train.


Musi­cian, enter­tain­er and self-styled ladies man. Enjoys atten­tion to his Roman her­it­age, though also fiercely pro­tect­ive of his Pol­ish roots. Curly hair, strong jaw-line and fierce, hawk like nose have gran­ted him an inor­din­ate amount of atten­tion from the fairer sex. And he’s pretty good with his hands too. Yes. That.

By Brad Grier

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