Monday, January 26, 2015

The Lost Chord: Chapter 36

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, Dr. Kerr and his team decode the odd message found inscribed on the back of the Beethoven statue, mentioning Lohengrin's Journey and a Fountain of Inspiration! Widor, annoyed that the death of so many agents will go badly for him at his performance review, confronts the woman he has abducted from Zenn's chalet, then calls Kerr and threatens her if the performance of Sullivan's opera isn't cancelled. Kerr arranges to trade the directions he's looking for for the life of his friend. As they leave, Zenn tells Kerr to "give my regards to Warnsdorff." Widor, looking at the woman, is reminded of someone from his distant past. Cameron discovers that Warnsdorff has something to do with chess - the Knight's Tour puzzle. Schreiber calls Moonbeam with his own discovery but a hail of machine-gun fire cuts his message short.

= = = = = = =

Chapter 36

Skripasha Scricci hadn't felt like skipping around a hotel room since his last world tour with the Siberian Transvestite Orchestra, before all that nastiness happened with the drug bust and prison term, back in the glory days of his career when he was a recovering child prodigy and world-famous cross-over rock-star. Things were finally going well for him after that horrendous rough patch, thanks to the kind folks at SHMRG, and for once he could say the future was actually looking bright.

His MP Project was falling into place after lining up his team – producer Holly Grayle and co-host Rhonna deMille – and negotiations with TV mogul Hugh Brissman were underway and going well. Thousands of prodigies were ready to be tested, the winner farmed out to orchestras and presenters around the world.

But most importantly was knowing something was working, despite all the problems SHMRG was having with its current project, tonight: Garth Widor had made some grievous fumbles but finally he had succeeded. The bombing of the Festspielhaus had failed and the car-bomb's victim survived, but Widor captured his archnemesis, Fictitia LaMouche!

She was the one responsible for those photographs exposing his true identity, revealing his drug lab and distribution ploy, which had briefly landed him in prison – and for that, she'd pay!

Scricci was supposedly overseeing the minute details prepping the Festspielhotel's Presidential Suite, getting it ready for Steele's imminent arrival when they just told him Widor's landed and was bringing a 'guest.' "Someone you'll be very glad to see," was all they would say, but that could be only one person.

Everything was ready – Holly Burton had called to say Steele would arrive in ten minutes – everything was going fine. Scricci continued to dance around, a renewed swivel obvious in his hips.

Widor would hand over the blogging bitch and she'd be all his, taking her downstairs to his own room where he'd teach her a lesson never to mess with Skripasha Scricci!

There was a commotion in the hallway as Basil Carsonoma, another member of the advance team, ushered Widor inside.

The old man stumbled in under the weight of the limp body draped carelessly over his shoulder, nearly dropping her, as he swung around to avoid hitting her head against the door.

A look of horror swept across Scricci's face before turning to anger.

"You bloody idiot, that's the wrong bitch!"

"Hello to you, too," Widor wheezed back as he dumped the woman into the far corner of the couch. "What do you mean, the wrong bitch? She was the only woman..."

"But you told me you had the woman who'd stolen your van," Scricci shouted, waving his arms wildly about.

Widor thought the skinny man in tight clothes resembled a flaming windmill.

"Well, yeah, it was kind of hectic, but if this isn't her," Widor muttered, "then who the hell is...!?"

Just then, Basil Carsonoma opened the door again, leaving in N. Ron Steele with a considerable entourage in his wake. Scricci and Widor immediately stopped their bickering, each bowing with a nod.

Steele waited as Holly Burton took his coat off with another flourish, his minions disbursing luggage around the room.

"OMG," Steele gasped, pointing at the couch. "What is she doing here!" He looked back and forth between them.

"I brought her back from the raid on Zenn's castle," Widor explained.

"Excellent work, Widor," Steele said, enthusiastically rubbing his hands, "most excellent work!"

"What...!?" Widor looked almost as dumbfounded as Scricci.

Looking down at her, Steele continued, "a most unexpected surprise! Well done!"

Holly Burton, already fixing Steele's favorite scotch, deferentially handed him his glass.

Raising the drink, Steele proposed a toast.

"To at least one thing that went right tonight," he said ominously, knocking the scotch back in one gulp. "No, really," he continued, "we have other issues to deal with, Widor."

Scricci, still annoyed that Widor had failed to bring him Fictitia LaMouche, stepped respectfully aside with a self-satisfied smirk, realizing whatever Widor had done wasn't enough to undo everything he hadn't.

Widor, meanwhile, still trying to catch his breath, hesitated before saying anything: seems he'd done something right, but what?

Steele slowly circumnavigated the couch, delightedly regarding his prey from every angle. Like a child, he wanted to poke her.

"Tell me, Widor, how did you capture her when everybody else failed?"

"Well, sir," he began cautiously, "when the shooting stopped, there she was..."

"Ah yes," Steele nodded, "with Zenn's bodyguards..."

"They caught us totally by surprise, sir," Widor explained, shuffling his feet.

"I'm sure they did, Widor," Steele said.

"From there, I grabbed her and ran..."

"...bringing her right to me..."

Steele bent over her, looking down carefully, before glancing up and smiling. He prodded her shoulder, fingering her hair.

"Like a regular Sleeping Beauty," he said, "after escaping the car bomb."

Steele looked around at everyone while nodding at Widor with renewed estimation.

Everyone was happy their boss was happy.

"Nobody else knew what happened to her, but Old Widor found her," Steele continued, smiling warmly, "brought her back..."

Widor stammered about his threat, amputating one finger for every hour's delay.

"Ah, excellent, good," Steele nodded, grinning broadly. Everyone realized he was pleased. "You've been hanging around Scarpia, haven't you?

"And speaking of whom," he glanced around, "anyone heard from him? Bühler?"

The agent named Bühler shrugged his shoulders.

"Enough of Robertson Sullivan's cousin. Now, about the van and those agents..."

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Agent Voo even walked us to our room at the Hotel Schweinwald after Kimara dropped us off at the lobby. Was she going to tuck us in, locking the door behind us?

"Really, your hospitality is too kind," I protested, trying to sound grateful.

"Kindness has nothing to do with it."

She was adamant about our staying out of the IMP's on-going investigation, specific orders from Security Director Yoda Leahy-Hu.

"So, sleep tight and enjoy playing with your statue, but that's it!"

The lobby, still brightly lit, had been virtually empty except for a few stragglers returning from a night out, where Fictitia had been left on her own and given fair warning. She'd mumbled something about staying with friends in one of the cottages but I didn't believe any of it.

D'Arcy'd arranged one of the posher rooms in the hotel for us, just down the hall from the Presidential Suite, but I wasn't interested in the plush furnishings or the drinks cart. Whichever way jet lag would normally operate – it's mid-evening back home, right? – I was wide awake and completely wired.

"These markings on Beethoven's leg" – Cameron held the statue to the light – "look something like chess moves to me."

"Again, with the chess – wait a minute! Isn't this also in code?"

If Leahy-Hu was in Ottobeuren to catch the killer and rescue LauraLynn, we could check out the old castle, find what Dhabbodhú was looking for and maybe retrieve Rob's stolen CD.

In a flash we took the elevator down to the lobby where the bellhop was complaining to the concierge.

"What's taking Moonbeam so long? His car's been waiting for twenty minutes!"

There it was, parked out front – running!

Before anyone would even notice, we jumped in and quickly drove away.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

They did not escape unnoticed: Fictitia, hiding outside, saw them take off.

"Wow," she thought, "that didn't take long."

Without even thinking about it, she knew she had to follow them.

"And like, wow," she noticed, "there's a bike waiting to be stolen!"

Hopping on, she was soon pedaling away!

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

So he'd thought it had been going well, having (even if accidentally) captured LauraLynn Harty, N. Ron Steele's current prize-of-the-moment, until Widor was told to locate and negotiate with that other terrorist, the one who had also threatened to blow up tomorrow morning's conference and would then steal all their thunder.

He had no idea who this guy was, where he'd find him or how much he could even offer to convince him to join forces with them, whatever his own cause.

Not only did he not have any more quality bomb-making material left, he couldn't even get a new van. Steele wouldn't trust him with a motorcycle, now, he'd said. How embarrassing.

"And why were they giving me a high-speed racing bike?" he sighed. "Do I even look like Lance Armstrong?"

Trying not to dwell on his increasing years and rapidly deteriorating body, Garth Widor picked up his shiny new wheels.

"It's a hot looking ride, if you were having a mid-life crisis..."

Conscious of his aging bladder, he decided this time, when nature called, not to go back into the lobby.

"What the hell," Widor croaked, hurriedly running out from behind the bushes, zipping up his fly, "where's my bike?"

There went some girl on his bike, pedaling furiously down the road.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

The fog was slowly lifting, colors swirling at first in slow motion, then gradually forming into the vaguest of shapes. The sounds became more distinct: conversation, maybe, possibly music, but completely unintelligible. She felt she was someplace warm, comfortable, surrounded by people she knew – or that was the impression it gave. LauraLynn didn't remember drinking that much she'd wake up with a hangover, not like this one was turning into. So far, she couldn't look around much or even open her eyes.

Her body ached liked she'd been dragged and carried and bounced around, things she had no recollection of doing, reminding her she was getting too old for this kind of partying. But that only confused her even more: how many years had it been since she'd danced at a party?

Most of the parties she'd been to recently were fairly staid affairs, everyone standing around smiling with drinks in hand, waiting for someone to announce that dinner was ready to be served. Even the wedding last year – her mother's nephew Martin Lewes marrying Aunt Katie's charming granddaughter Geraldine Shaw-Manders – promised stability.

Rob, though busy working on his new opera, agreed to a holiday and even met LauraLynn at the airport for the long drive up to the Shaw house in the Catskills.

It had turned out to be a beautiful, sunny day that weekend, a mild summer-like afternoon in early autumn, so they'd decided to have the ceremony in the garden after all. The roses may have faded but the garden was ablaze with color, the asters and zinnias attracting numerous butterflies. Her cousin Bernie, Aunt Katie's older son and father of the bride, was delighted to oversee the garden set-up while LauraLynn had agreed to help her mother with the indoor reception.

Images were gradually filtering through the haze, a large room opulently decorated, bookshelves and knickknack tables hugging the walls, a long table loaded with flowers covered with dishes for the buffet. On the walls hung various objets d'art including a magnificent samurai sword from the original production of The Mikado.

But something had happened, something unexpectedly awful – it was painful to concentrate – a large man dressed in black burst in, threatening Rob with a pistol and yelling something about his new opera.

Rob shouted, "is this about that 'gizmo'?" after which the intruder fired off a warning shot and everyone ducked.

The bullet startled the cat who ran across the bookcase and knocked over a statue that hit the sword which fell and struck Aunt Katie across the back of her neck.

Pandemonium broke out as Rob and Bernie chased the man out across the patio and down through the garden as LauraLynn dove to protect Aunt Katie, only to find blood everywhere.

She remembered the big man in black glaring at her, thoroughly pissed.

She'd seen that face again – but where?

LauraLynn opened her eyes just in time to see a big man in black walk toward the door and leave. Was that Dhabbodhú or Girdlestone – or the man who'd killed Aunt Katie?

She screamed and tried to scramble deeper into the cushions of this very comfortable couch she was lying on.

"Ah, my dear Ms. Harty, you're awake." The voice sounded more insinuating than pleasant. "Welcome to my little party!"

Someone handed her a glass of scotch.

"But first, we must talk."

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

The room was so dark – with its thick carpets, rich mahogany furniture, plush chairs and velvet drapes wherever you looked – the old woman sitting by the fireplace felt it was already nighttime. With the curtains tightly drawn against any intrusion from the outside world, it almost always felt like nighttime there. The street noise outside was never bothersome – given her experience these past many years, she was used to it – and the constant sounds from Broadway a block away always sounded distant.

It was like a cocoon in here, compared to her world before, she often thought during these quiet times. She savored the comfort of it all, sitting there watching and waiting. The clock on the mantle had stopped but, not surprisingly, her sense of time had stopped long before it.

She'd had no proof who she was, no ID cards, no copy of her birth certificate, nothing that was viable. She had been, well... traveling then and hadn't brought them with her. Plus, if she had her birth certificate, assuming she could access it, it'd say she's only 36 years old. She had a credit card saying she'd been a member since 1997 but in 1985, that looked rather suspicious. Plus her driver's license was equally problematic, having been issued in 2009.

Hadn't she spent the last twenty-some years watching her childhood-self grow up, living through everything she'd already lived through herself, knowing everything that would happen, and yet could say nothing about it: who'd become President in 2000 long before the Supreme Court told us; how September 11th would change us all?

That nasty little child, her true identity, turned into such a disappointment, as she looked back on her life. Her mother whom she'd rescued had no idea she'd saved her life.

So, unable to return to the present, she became a homeless person, living on the streets of New York. People thought she was crazy and who could say that she wasn't?

"Time travel was a bitch..."

Her real name had been Klavdia Klangfarben.

But then, she smiled, suddenly everything changed.

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Lost Chord: Chapter 35

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, following LauraLynn's abduction and the battle between SHMRG and IMP agents, Dr. Kerr & Cameron are reunited with IMP Special Forces Director Yoda Leahy-Hu, Fictitia LaMouche and V.C. D'Arcy, and they explain what they've discovered about the former Maltese Mozart which has now turned into a statue of Beethoven. LauraLynn comes to and realizes she's in a helicopter. Tr'iTone begins the internet broadcast of his Symphony for One Whose Time Has Come. Armin Schriebter is working on the program notes for the premiere of Sullivan's opera and is about to open the file of the Skype interview Peter Moonbeam had with the composer just before he died as Moonbeam meets Kunegunde Nacht for a late-night drink that turns out not quite as he had hoped.


= = = = = = =
CHAPTER 35

Standing around behind Howard Zenn, we watched as he slowly scanned the magnifying glass over what turned into five delicate lines of very strange text across Beethoven's back, etched into the bronze.

"He must have been a fine craftsman," D'Arcy straightened up, whispering appreciatively.

Zenn, eyebrows raised, glanced at his nephew.

"With a very tiny knife to carve something in bronze that small," Will, himself a sculptor, added in amazement. "Without today's newest technological skills, I couldn't even imagine doing that, myself."

Leahy-Hu held up her phone and took a photo of the inscription, before sending it off in an e-mail.

"I'm sending it to my chief cryptographer, Dr. Haydn Plainvue, in London."

"With any luck," I wondered, "Beethoven would be wearing a decoder ring."

It looked like gibberish, but familiar gibberish.

"Oh, no need for that," Zenn told Leahy-Hu. "I worked in cryptography during the war for American troops in Germany. It's just a simple substitution code, you see, if I'm not mistaken." Looking around at Cameron and me with a knowing wink, he added, "one we've already seen tonight – and backwards!"

EFP RKDQVFGJSQVXK KPTL TFPTG FKPGRKTQJM FTU
SDXGTQ 'MMTDH TPU FPTGNKTEGTPC LDY 'RPTEF
!KXGTQ EMTB TKPTL KX TRPWD:XMRFEQVTG EEPGE
FDX FRKXRKPTFGTEEPG FTU KTWXGR MXLNGTL FXU
EFPW YEPMWKTNKXUTR FTU KTKKDGW KPTL GTU DU J


"Hah," Cameron laughed, standing back. "So that's where I've seen this before!"

"In Harrison Harty's coded journal?" I laughed.

Will found some index cards while Cameron assigned us each one line.

As Zenn quickly spelled out individual words, I carefully wrote everything down, one line for each of our committee.

"Find the letter in the top line, then match it to the letter below for the solution," Cameron explained, writing out the code's solution on separate cards and passing them around.

While Leahy-Hu mumbled something sceptically, we managed to complete our assigned lines, hoping they'd make better sense in context.

Des Lohengrins Reise, mein' Nachforschung ist
Steig' zum viertenKreis die Quell' herauf
Tritt, Rechtsgläubige, an meine Welt heran!
Das Merkmal graben des Ritterseingangs aus
O Du, der mein Brunnen des Gedankenblitz bist


Of the five of us, my German was no doubt the rustiest, with Cameron fresh from his first-year course. We read out our lines, one after the other, while Zenn translated.

Of Lohengrin's Journey is my Quest
Ascend to the 4th Circle of the Fountain
Approach, Right-Believers, to my World!
Seek the Sign of the Knight's Entrance
You are my Fountain of Inspiration


"That's the fountain that Rob's killer is looking for," I shouted triumphantly. "He's looking for the Fountain of Inspiration!"

"Ah, the Fountain of Inspiration." Zenn sounded dubious. "You really think so? Like the Fountain of Youth, highly overrated..."

Zenn wasn't the only one who couldn't take such an idea seriously.

"Would composers devoid of intellect," D'Arcy added, "kill someone merely over inspiration?"

"That probably fits our killer's profile perfectly."

D'Arcy was sure the idea of such a fountain was purely metaphorical, but a very powerful one all the same. "Imagine how many artists have looked for such a thing for centuries!"

"The magic pill," Zenn chuckled, "when you've no talent to rely on!"

"While others tried booze, drugs, even coffee..."

"Ours is not to judge but to track down Rob Sullivan's killer, metaphor or not," I said, glancing around, "and if helping him locate this is enough to catch him, fine."

The problem was, naturally, this wasn't enough, making little sense by itself, only raising more questions that needed more solutions.

"In some way," I wondered, "maybe it's just another form of code?"

"Isn't this an unusual rhyme-scheme for 19th Century German poetry?" Cameron asked. "It's a kind of mirror form, right?"

"An arch-form: A – B – C – kind-of-B – A. What's also odd is there's only one line with any end punctuation."

"Doesn't it sound like a riddle, though – five lines searching for meaning?"

That reminded me of Robert Graves writing about Welsh riddles often needing rearrangement to make sense.

"Let's try this..."

Des Lohengrins Reise, mein' Nachforschung ist
O Du, der mein Brunnen des Gedankenblitz bist
Steig' zum viertenKreis die Quell' herauf
Das Merkmal graben des Ritterseingangs aus
Tritt, Rechtsgläubige, an meine Welt heran!


"Better yet," Zenn quietly suggested, "reverse the rhymed pairs like a mirror – this English translation might make more sense."

O you, who are my Fountain of Inspiration,
Lohengrin's Journey is my Quest:
Seek the Sign of the Knight's Entrance,
Ascend the 4th Circle out of the Fountain.
Approach, Right-Believers, my World!


"The Fountain is Lohengrin's quest," I offered, "so after finding his entrance, ascend the fountain to approach Beethoven's world."

"And the Fountain of Inspiration," D'Arcy pondered, "would be Lohengrin's Holy Grail?"

Picking it up and gazing into Beethoven's face, I noticed the green felt on the statue's base was coming loose, patting it back into place so it wouldn't scratch Zenn's antique table.

"A Lohengrin reference," I said, "a knight's entrance marked by a sign and climbing a fountain with four circles..."

"Didn't Beethoven die some twenty years before Wagner wrote Lohengrin," Cameron asked.

Zenn smiled, looking from one to another.

D'Arcy agreed but pointed out the legend of Lohengrin was quite ancient.

"But the fountain is not the goal of Lohengrin's Quest," I mentioned, thinking out loud, hoping for – ironically – inspiration. "It's the location of what he's searching for, the composer's Holy Grail."

"The fountain with a knight's statue – Lohengrin's statue – in Ottobeuren," D'Arcy exclaimed. "Perhaps it's there, in the statue's base?"

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

"Hell-fire and damnation," the old man croaked, "how will I explain this," dragging the woman's body along with him. "Five of my best agents shot dead and now, geez – my van!" Naturally, she'd gone and fainted on him, hauling her through the rubble, becoming just more dead weight to carry. Widor kept seeing the destruction around him, recalling the bodies left behind, how they'd dropped like flies, caught unaware. Who would've expected the old man to have that many security guards?

"So, that's how they blasted their way through the wall," he realized, "by going and blowing up my goddamn van!"

He could see nothing left but the smoldering shell of the van.

And after going all this way just to get his van back and capture that bitch Scricci desperately wanted.

"Steele is going to be so pissed, losing so many good men. You know, maybe it is time to retire."

He continued struggling with her limp form, next trying a fireman's carry.

"If I don't have a heart attack, he'll probably retire me himself – with a bullet right between the eyes..."

Did Steele know Zenn kept an elite force of bodyguards, he wondered, that it had all been thought out, a booby-trap that would take him out without bothering Steele's feeble conscience?

But Widor was conscious enough to understand this was not the time to engage in such useless philosophical paranoia: Zenn's bodyguards were already streaming toward him, yelling at him to stop. Knowing they wouldn't start shooting because they could possibly hit his hostage, Widor still understood his escape was limited.

Fortunately, they hadn't spotted SHMRG's stealth ATV hidden beyond those tall bushes, lighter now, going downhill, without his crew. Strapping the unconscious woman into the seat behind him, he took off.

Looking in the rear-view mirror, Widor noticed someone rapidly gaining on him, small black forms on small black ATVs. "Geez, this guy's really prepared for anything. Where had they been hidden?"

Perhaps Zenn was gearing up for some final confrontation with SHMRG for control of the world's classical music industry?

Fortunately, Igor still waited for him at the bottom of the mountain, SHMRG's chopper revved up, the cargo bay open, just where they'd artfully hidden it behind a barrier of tall pines. In a flash, they were airborne once Widor explained they'd been ambushed, all the men lost to enemy fire.

They'd no sooner cleared the trees when several black-clad forms surrounded the space where the helicopter stood moments ago: a close one, Widor thought, as bullets whizzed harmlessly past the windows.

He strapped the woman into one of the seats in the back, just before she came to and screamed. His face barely inches from her own, he screamed back at her.

"Where the hell's your phone," he shouted at her above the engines.

"You kidnap me to use my phone!?"

"I oughtta slap the living crap out of you, you lousy bitch." No wonder Skripasha Scricci wanted rid of her. He sure as hell didn't want her tweeting about anything, not now.

"Wait," she said, after Widor started rifling through her clothes and hand-bag. "Terry didn't gave it back to me..."

"Oh, yeah? So, what's your number, sweetheart? I'll give him a quick call, then – let him know you're okay."

Somehow he'd assumed she'd be much younger, considering what Scricci told him.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Recalling dinner three months ago with Rob and Franz-Dieter at Zeitgeist's favorite restaurant, Die Wolfsschlucht – The Wolf's Glen – in Ottobeuren, two blocks from the Marktplatz at the intersection of Bahnhofstrasse and Ludwigstrasse, D'Arcy described the view through the front window looking onto the square through a couple of picturesque, centuries-old trees.

"It's the Ritterplatz – or the Knight's Square – a fountain topped by an old statue of a knight," he said. "The locals have apparently been calling the statue 'Lohengrin' since the late-1700s."

Zenn perked up, looking over at him. "That's right, I remember, now! Right in the heart of the town!"

"A fountain complete with Lohengrin," Cameron said, "but what about an entrance?"

"If that fountain has four circles, we may have located our goal!"

Just then, a phone began to ring.

Everyone looked around to see whose phone it was before I realized it was mine – or rather, it was LauraLynn's. "Guess I forgot to give it back to her in the excitement."

Assuming it was the killer again, I answered, hearing deep, heavy breathing. The voice was darker than I remembered.

"I have the woman," he said slowly, "and I will start dismembering her if the opera's premiere isn't canceled. We'll start with the fingers, one every hour till your decision's announced."

This was new and drastic: before, it was just finding the fountain. Perhaps now he was getting more desperate. I agreed to convey the message to festival management, glancing at D'Arcy. After all, I thought, why had he murdered Rob and stolen the score if not to ruin the premiere?

"Good," he continued, "but you'd better hurry. If I cut off all her fingers, she will never blog again."

I didn't realize LauraLynn was a blogger but I let that pass.

"If tomorrow's rehearsal goes off as scheduled, what's left of her dies." He stopped talking, only his breathing audible.

The killer not only modified his voice, he was on “high cliché.”

I glanced at Cameron and D'Arcy and they both shrugged their shoulders. No better time to let him know.

"Look, we found the location of what you're looking for," I said. "Meet me in Ottobeuren at the Ritterplatz tonight, at the base of the knight's statue outside the Wolf's Glen restaurant."

There was a long pause. Perhaps he was stunned, an unexpected development.

Certainly, Director Leahy-Hu was, scowling at me.

"Then I can exchange the directions for my friend's life," I added. "That way, you'll have what you want – I'll throw in the journal as well – and you'll let her go."

I could hear only his heavy breathing which was becoming very annoying. Perhaps he was having an asthma attack.

"Do we have a deal?" I pressed. "Your directions for my friend?"

"Very well," he concluded, sounding vaguely disconcerted, "and of course, no police, no IMP. See you in an hour."

Leahy-Hu was furious but she had to admit I was practically delivering the alleged kidnapper and killer into her hands. She called and ordered a dozen agents to meet her in Ottobeuren.

"We'll see how well this works out, but for future reference, I prefer to make all the arrangements, professor."

Leahy-Hu told the agent assigned to us to take us to the hotel and keep an eye on us.

Zenn shook my hand before he concluded, "Give my regards to Warnsdorff."

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Putting his phone away, Widor looked at this woman with mild contempt. At least, she wasn't lying to him. "That was good," he thought. "I hate it when they do that."

Who this idiot was he'd been talking to, he had no idea, trying to strike a deal with him.

What was this about directions, the Knight's Square, something he's looking for? It all sounded like a trap, anyway. None of that made any sense – well, no more so than usual.

"Let him hang around the square and wait for me," he chuckled, "I've got a lot more stuff to do." She started struggling harder against her bonds, so he slapped her face.

Widor wondered what it was about her that Scricci hated so much, what she could've possibly done to him.

"It's time you got quiet again, okay? We'll see if they're listening." He held up his hand, the fingers splayed. "I'll given them one hour," he said, "then it's bye-bye, index finger." He waved his index finger at her before reaching into his pocket and taking out a small hypodermic needle.

"She could use freshening up and her dress is a little wrinkled, but she really isn't a bad-looking woman." Widor saw her lying helplessly, her long blonde hair already turning gray.

As the woman lay struggling beneath him, once he'd grabbed her arm and jabbed the needle into a vein, she reminded him of another woman in his life from long ago.

"It must be the hair," he thought as she quickly went limp. "Does she look that much like Lisl?"

No, he remembered, looking down at her: Lisl was older than he – the only woman he had ever loved. They had separated them, taking him away – he never saw her again.

Why were these memories so constantly shrouded? What had become of her? If only he could remember what happened! All he heard was the constant sound of the helicopter – whump whump whump.

Had she really borne him a son after he'd been whisked away?

"The saddest helicopter ride of my life..."

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Two helicopters bearing the IMP logo arrived and parked in the clearing in front of the castle's main entrance – we could hear the "whump whump whump" echoing rhythmically throughout the building – carefully navigating the tight spot between the rocks and tall pine trees and the burned-out ruins of the van. One whisked Leahy-Hu and several agents off to their stake-out in Ottobeuren, hoping to catch Widor in the trap, while the other was loaded with the dead SHMRG militia – and us.

IMP Agent Del Kimara, who'd completed a year of basic medical training before going into the international music security business, checked each of the SHMRG agents to verify they were indeed dead, even determining the cause of death was a flaw in their uniforms: underneath, they were all wearing red shirts.

Agents Milton Leise and Rhonda Voo stacked the bodies in the back like a cord of so much discarded firewood, amazed that, despite their superior weaponry, they'd been easily overpowered and killed. Leise placed dibs on one complex-looking machine-gun, a Todesküss-2000, the infamous "Kiss-of-Death" despite Kimara's mentioning it hadn't helped SHMRG.

Fictitia joined Cameron and me in the back seat while Leise and Voo sat up with the pilot, Kimara, a cozy gathering if you didn't consider the dead bodies behind us.

After flying back over the valleys we'd been driving through earlier tonight, I started shouting under the engine noise, hoping the agents up front couldn't hear what we were talking about.

"Cameron, what d'you think Zenn meant by 'Give my regards to Warnsdorf'? Who is Warnsdorf, somebody we'd meet here?"

Cameron just shrugged his shoulders. "Or maybe it's Ottobeuren's equivalent to Broadway?"

"You think it might be some village...?"

"Maybe he understood more to the clue and is letting us know...?"

Considering I thought she'd been pursuing us because of the Maltese Mozart, I was surprised Leahy-Hu seemed so unconcerned, letting me hang onto the Beethoven statue which she dismissed as inconsequential.

"If it keeps you busy and out of my hair," she'd said, "that will be quite satisfactory for me."

Fictitia had been looking out the window at the dark world below, uncomfortable knowing that somehow we'd kidnapped her, not that she didn't have enough trust issues in her life already.

I'd apologized, that it had been unintentional, but only made matters worse by then sitting between her and Cameron. Plus, the fact she didn't have her phone and was unable to tweet or post anything really bugged her. After all, without her phone, what could she possibly do with herself?

It barely registered with her when I pulled the Beethoven statue out and started turning it around in my hands. Was there something that Zenn had seen but which we hadn't, yet? Was his mention of Warnsdorf, I wondered, a clue to keep looking? What was it we were still missing?

Cameron took out LauraLynn's phone and started to 'google' the word Warnsdorf. A nearby village? There were tons of responses. Maybe the mayor of Ottobeuren or a street near the knight's statue...?

"Whoa," he gasped, "there's over 9,300 hits and many refer to something called 'the knight's tour' – a chess term."

"Chess? What does chess have to do with Beethoven?" I asked impatiently.

"Perhaps Zenn was just making a pun?"

"Or does it explain something? It could mean many things – knight's tour...?"

Agent Voo answered her phone, then kept up a steady lighthearted conversation with friend and fellow agent, Destinée Knox, occasionally yelling to be heard above the noise of the helicopter's engine.

"Hey, what's that," Cameron asked, pointing at something on the statue's side.

In the dim light, I couldn't tell.

Voo's chatter was proving to be more distracting as it went on, starting off business-like before turning more personal.

"Maybe just texture markings along the leg. Or is it more text?"

"I was thinking, after you're done with that stake-out," Voo asked her, "maybe we could go somewhere for a drink?"

Cameron traded the phone for the statue and took a closer look.

"At the Mobius," Voo repeated, "remember, that really cool club in Memmingen?"

Fictitia looked at the phone and sighed.

"Well, I know I'm going to be too wired after all this, once we're back to the hotel," Voo continued.

I was finding her chit-chat really annoying, trying to focus on reading.

"I have to drop these guys off, then I'm done," Voo shouted.

"Warnsdorff's Rule," I read, "the knight's tour..."

Cameron, having noticed the statue's green felt covering was coming loose again, pressed it firmly back against the base.

"It looks like a series of random letters and numbers," he explained.

Too tiny to figure out in the dim light of the helicopter, the possible clue would have to wait.

"We should be back at the hotel before much longer," Cameron noted.

That's when it occurred to me, if Dhabbodhú's gone out to Ottobeuren, we should check out the old castle.

"Maybe we can find the missing disc with Rob's score?" I suggested, "or check the location for addition clues?"

Fictitia tried to whisper over the roar, "I want to go along!"

Putting her phone away, Agent Voo turned around and brusquely reminded us we should stay out of this, now. "Just let us go and do our job, will you?" she implored.

Once we got closer to landing, Voo handed Fictitia her phone back.

"No more tweeting about the case!"

"Right..."

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

In the darkness of the Festspielhaus offices, well past the midnight hour, Schreiber, his cubicle the only one occupied, finished up some last-minute work in the building's quiet (ignoring the white-noise). He sat back, jaw hanging wide open, not believing what he'd heard before Moonbeam started wrapping up the interview. Robertson Sullivan had made no statements to anyone before his death about the changes made to his opera's conclusion, and yet here he'd laid out a modest outline, a tantalizing hint.

Running his hands through his disheveled hair, his eyes staring in disbelief, Schrieber wondered, "Did anyone else know about this? Apparently even Moonbeam missed this little tidbit," hardly something easy to overlook. Everybody had been saying they didn't know whether he'd finished the opera or not, much less how it ended.

Sullivan gave a quick preçis, only the barest glimpse of an outline, perhaps not enough for someone to reconstruct it, but enough Schreiber wanted to quote it verbatim in the plot synopsis.

"What an incredible discovery," he continued stammering, not believing his own luck. "I must listen to this once more..."

Too amazed to jot down any notes, he let the file play and heard some even more amazing news: aside from a few measures, Sullivan mentioned he'd just finished the opera.

"Well, basically it's finished," Sullivan corrected himself, "just a few things left, the usual proofreading and a little editing. There's a big English horn solo I want to revisit, but yeah..." It was clear he'd paused so Moonbeam could make some brief comment but there was nothing, not even acknowledgment.

"Now I just need to save the whole score to a file I can e-mail to my assistant there and let them extract all the orchestral parts and the vocal score."

Sullivan waited for a response before he added tentatively, "Peter, you there?" He figured that could be edited out.

Moonbeam sounded distant as he apologized for having run into the bathroom.

"He missed the most important bit of the entire interview," Schreiber laughed, "and has no idea what Sullivan said!"

Schreiber reached for his phone and hit redial, determined to gloat a little over what the great Peter Moonbeam overlooked but just as he did, he heard a click and some footsteps. He waited for Moonbeam to pick up, wondering who was interrupting him: the night watchman, maybe the vacuum guy?

It seemed to take forever – Moonbeam answering his phone, footsteps slowly approaching – like time, somehow, was suddenly standing still. When he was deep into his work, facing deadlines, it flew by!

Schreiber called out to the approaching footsteps to let them know he was there, that he was still working. He thought it odd there was no response, no confirmation – no nothing.

Usually the security guy would just say "okay, don't work too late." Nothing stopped the vacuum guy from cleaning...

Figuring the guy would rev up his vacuum cleaner without any warning – undoubtedly, the most annoying sound in the world – just as Moonbeam would answer his phone, he ended up in voice-mail.

During an ominously expectant silence that felt like it was lasting forever, Schreiber whispered, "Hello, Moonbeam? You'll never guess..."

He heard the sound of bullets, a deafening spray of machine-gun fire, as intense pain ripped through his body.

Shots echoed through the white-noise before everything went dark – like, really dark.

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Lost Chord: Chapter 34

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, the conclusion of an excerpt from Harrison Harty's 1880 Schweinwald Journal, Harty recounts the continuing adventures he and his friends Mahler, Rott and Ethel Smyth experienced that summer, thinking about what might have gotten his roommate Gutknaben killed and about the polarization of music between Brahms and the Conservatives and Liszt and the Modernists. Dean Bezsmyertnikov, in his seminar, "Nuance and Mockery in the Critique of New Music," throws down a challenge. Overhearing a conversation between Brahms and the counterpoint professor, Emilio Fabbro, Ethel discovered there's a dinner at the Count's home which struck her as suspicious: she and the others follow Brahms' coach in a wagon at a discreet distance, but things do not go according to plan. Meanwhile, the present-day narrative resumes at Zenn's alpine chalet after the disastrous episode pitting SHMRG agents against the IMP when LauraLynn Harty was abducted.

= = = = = = =

Chapter 34

"I go out for an evening and leave him alone for just a couple hours and look what happens!"

Will Schegel shook his head, stopping occasionally to massage his aching wrists. He'd been in the kitchen preparing tea for Uncle Howard's unexpected visitors – decaf, given the hour – when they returned.

He didn't know what to call them – they weren't really the police – but he'd already told them what happened. In fact, he wasn't even sure he could really trust them, either.

The one who's dressed up like a Goth chick was pretty strange, not like any of his uncle's usual visitors. Hiding by the van before it exploded, she's lucky to be alive.

Then there was that short, ugly one, the guy in the trenchcoat, plus all these agents dressed in black.

It was the ones dressed in white who'd come out of nowhere, a scene that kept replaying inside his head. It had been so frightening, he explained, like something from a movie. He had no idea who they were or why they were there, much less why they wanted his uncle.

And now the dungeon was a shambles, so many things hopelessly ruined, huge holes blasted through two side walls. But then, walls can always be repaired. Thankfully, Uncle Howard was unharmed.

Fictitia LaMouche, for her part, sat there sulking, saying nothing to anyone, annoyed they had taken away her phone. Weren't these the guys who'd arrested Cameron? She would tell them nothing. Dressed in gothic black right down to the bruises around her head, she quietly soaked up everything she heard.

She'd taken a much needed cigarette break, after escaping from the van, watching this dude open the garage door when all these guys in white come from nowhere and grabbed him.

Next, these guys in black grabbed her, snooping around in the garage – the door'd been left open, she insisted – so she figured she needed a diversion, blowing up the van. Oops...

Fictitia looked up as the door opened and seemed surprised.

"Cameron!"

"Fictitia...?"

Then simultaneously, "What are you doing here?"

"So I take it you two know each other," Leahy-Hu nodded, skipping over unnecessary introductions. "May I ask, how?"

Fictitia remained silent but nodded at Cameron, glad, at least, he's okay.

"We're friends on Facebook," he said cautiously. "We'd met at the fountain on the plaza after BandanaMan fell in."

"So now, I suppose," she sighed, "you're life-long 'buds,' is that it?" She pulled out her phone and dialed.

Will helped his uncle to the table and gave him some tea.

"Yes, Agent Lott," Leahy-Hu started, sounding imperiously official. "I'll need a forensic team to mop up after the SHMRG agents. Any word from those who are trailing Mr. Widor and his hostage? And while you're at it, I'll need return transport to Hotel Schweinwald, including the good professor and his wingman."

Leahy-Hu tried to explain, checking her watch, how they've been tracking Widor, a henchman of SHMRG's CEO, N. Ron Steele, over a period of years with no luck at catching him red-handed.

"And in all that time," she concluded, "we've never had evidence of alter-egos or other disguises like you've mentioned!"

"But don't forget," I insisted, "LauraLynn, Cameron and I saw Dhabbodhú at the banquet the night Rob was killed, and also how he'd left the table before the murder was discovered."

Though we hadn't actually seen the man LauraLynn was calling Rothbart Girdlestone, D'Arcy and I agreed her description matched BandanaMan and the old woman – as well, I added, as Dr. Dhabbodhú.

Leahy-Hu held up Fictitia's phone showing us a photo posted on Facebook, this snarling hulk before a smoking fissure.

"Yes!" I shouted, "that could easily be another of Dhabbodhú's ingenious disguises."

Slapping the phone back in her pocket, Leahy-Hu explained how Fictitia followed him out to the old Schweinwald Castle.

"That's the original site of the statue, isn't it?" I asked D'Arcy.

"Yes," he said, "on the old fountain before it was moved inside and got stuck in the castle's foyer."

Losing patience, Leahy-Hu pulled out her phone and called Agent Lott again.

"That helicopter can't get here fast enough!"

While Leahy-Hu made her call, I put the statue on the table, plunking it down in front of Howard Zenn.

"It's not very large, considering," I said, "barely eight inches tall, maybe?"

"Made of bronze," D'Arcy said, lifting it, "but not all that heavy."

Cameron wondered if there's another statue inside.

"It must be the model," I suggested, "used to create the large statue that's now on the Festspielhaus Plaza."

D'Arcy noted one slight difference: "there, Beethoven's a little more hunched forward."

Dismissing Cameron's not unlikely idea for now, I wondered what Beethoven's statue had been doing inside the Maltese Mozart, the clue on the medallion more pertinent to Beethoven's love-life than Mozart's.

"But," Zenn pointed, "have you noticed this?" His finger ran along some tiny marks which appeared to be texture.

I leaned forward, looking over his shoulder at the statue's broad back but couldn't see what he was pointing at. It amazed me at his age he could see that at all.

"I'm not sure," he said, "but it looks like it's a text – here, five lines... can't you see it?"

"Would it be easier to read on the actual statue," Cameron wondered, "once we get back to the Festspielhaus?"

"It's probably been inscribed only on this... Fetch me a magnifying glass?"

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

"Where am I?" kept floating through her cotton-stuffed head like a mantra, feeling too weak to open her eyes. LauraLynn was looking around but couldn't see, assuming she must be blindfolded. "Yes, that's probably it," feeling somewhat better until it occurred to her, "so why the hell am I blindfolded?"

She could hear talking but couldn't make out what anyone was saying, bits of information floating to the surface like she was coming up from a deep sleep, too far away.

Thinking she should lie still and let it happen on its own, she began to realize she wasn't exactly floating. She was sitting in a chair – no, strapped to one – but why?

Was this what it was like to come back from a near-death experience or come out of a coma?

She had this vague recollection there'd been an intense amount of noise – perhaps that's why she could barely hear now. She'd never been shell-shocked before, unless the blindfold was covering her ears. Didn't gunfire make that kind of noise, she remembered from watching TV, but where'd she get caught in gunfire?

She tried to remember where she'd been, urging herself to think calmly: "What was the last thing you recall?" Considering the images flashing across her eyelids, she had to be hallucinating.

She had been huddling in the darkness with Rob and Terry, laughing – was it the corner of the attic – why did she feel like she was coming out of a coma? No, those were two different things – one was then; the other, now – even if she's unsure which was which.

It wasn't a laughing matter, more like... wait a minute, what did Cousin Maurie have to do with it? Yes, in Maine that summer, hiding from Maurie who never forgave them.

Rob looked so young then, but wait – hadn't he died recently – murdered?

There was an image of a horribly disfigured face floating past her, seeing, hearing, speaking nothing – she tried screaming.

And poor old Terry – kind, geeky Terry – "but wasn't he gray-haired with a beard, now?" No, too far back...

It was like someone – or something – had gone and hijacked her mind, thoughts coming and going in any order. "This is your brain on quantum theory." It was kind of scary.

"Hijacked?" Maybe she was flying, strapped to a chair on a plane, but moving – or more like being transported.

"Oh, I just want to go back to sleep – so peaceful, there," but then she started thing about struggling. "What if sinking into unconsciousness means death?" She didn't want to die.

"Not exactly hijacked," it occurred to her, "more like abducted, that's it." At first, she felt a tiny bit relieved. But again, there was no connection that made any sense: "by whom?"

She found herself running wildly through dark hallways with lots of turns – and a naked man – "Wait – harem pants...?"

Like that made any sense! What was going on in her brain? What kind of drugs had somebody slipped her?

"That's it – Great-Grandpa Harrison's journal! That guy'd been after the old journal!"

But was that the same guy who grabbed her at the castle then dragged her off down the mountain?

No, he was fully clothed – his face, not as nasty-looking, but still...

The blindfold was ripped from her eyes.

Whump whump whump.

"I'm in a helicopter...?"

Squinting, she saw that face!

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Lionel still wasn't sure why he was wandering around these secret passageways, considering his deep-seated fear of even moderate darkness, glad enough that these walls were unable to talk – or scream. The room he saw looked like it had been carved into rock, round like some sub-basement of the tower. Had Dhabbodhú somehow transformed this space into a monstrous sound-proofed recording studio? What about those speakers and miles of cables and huge color wheel, as if they'd been installed by Nibelungs?

"It must've cost him a fortune, setting up this studio," Lionel thought, looking through two pinpricks in the wall, no doubt eyes in some creepy portrait following you around the room. And this room certainly looked like a refurbished if long abandoned dungeon, never ridding itself of that evil aftertaste.

After putting the CD into a player, Dhabbodhú – whoever he really was – picked up a white garment of some kind which he pulled over his naked frame like a medieval knight's tunic. It was long, sleeveless and pure white but in place of a red cross was a red treble clef.

Then, holding aloft a belt from which hung a surprisingly small scabbard, he cinched it ceremoniously around his waist. Too small for all but a dagger, it held, instead, a baton!

Beyond the mixer board's top, Lionel could see a three-branched silver candelabra with its three white candles burning brightly. On both sides of the square table stood ornately tall columnar candlesticks.

"They would bring in a fortune on the antique market," Lionel thought. "Even those candles must be 17th Century..."

It was an odd mix, the modern technology of a recording studio inside a space that was pure medieval. The oddest thing was this huge color wheel from some '80s disco.

It was divided into twelve pie-shaped wedges done in such an ornate way, it all looked like stained glass. Imagine if it's some kind of color-clock! Green was at high noon...

Looking around, Lionel had no clear idea what its purpose might be before noticing Dhabbodhú began to move again.

The man he thought was Dr. Dhabbodhú placed two objects before him, evenly spaced across the front of the table: the letter Lionel had stolen for him; and a dusty apothecary jar.

"A sealed letter in Beethoven's own hand so far unread by anyone. And this," he smiled, "Beethoven's dying breath."

He held the jar aloft as if elevating the host, "a steal," he added, "at only $2,577.27 on eBay. The only thing lacking, now, is water from the Fountain of Inspiration."

Clasping his hands prayerfully to his chest, Dhabbodhú bowed in three directions before picking up something from the table, kissing it, placing it around his neck – a locket of some sort.

The man Lionel considered his savior mumbled something he couldn't quite hear, as if cursing someone under his breath.

"Since they want to play childish games, I'll destroy their little symposium and blow up all their famous guest composers."

Lionel was horrified at what he'd heard: he'd wanted to attend that.

"Didn't I see boxes of dynamite in one of the storage rooms? Ah, but there is never enough time..."

Stepping up to the microphone, he cleared his throat and paused briefly before pushing a button on the board. The on-air light glowed softly above him as he adjusted the slider.

"We interrupt your local programming to bring you this special internet broadcast. Good evening and welcome to this history-making concert. Tonight, we'll hear the exciting world premiere of a major new work."

His deep voice sounded modulated and professional, the kind people would say, "Great pipes! You should work in radio!"

Had Dr. Dhabbodhú – or whoever he was – set up a radio broadcasting station in the castle's dungeon, Lionel wondered, or was he a frustrated radio announcer playing a game of pretend?

"I call it Symphonie pour celui dont le temps est venu, the 'Symphony for One Whose Time Has Come.' For the next six hours you will sit there and be amazed."

Dhabbodhú pushed a yellow button and the wheel rose up into place, covering the vast room's sole electric light.

"The composer may not be known to you, no household name – yet – but he is one you will quickly acclaim!"

Like anyone listening, no doubt, Lionel held his breath, awaiting the discovery.

"Bach, Beethoven and Brahms have long waited for the revelation of one greater than they to make his appearance!"

He drew the baton from its scabbard with a magnificent sweeping gesture, ascending a small podium before the table. He prayerfully lifted the ivory baton heavenward before again addressing the microphone.

"So listen to me now, ye millions, this premiere of my masterpiece, to which I have appended this sacred epigram:

Holy Triad,
Mighty Trichord,
Immortal Ternary Form.
Find me three times worthy...


He intoned this twice more, facing to the left, then the right. After a pause, he resumed his incantation.

"Three, a sacred number to most religions. The number of sharps in A Major and flats in E-flat Major. A and E-flat – forming the interval of three whole steps – a tritone!

"I... am... Tr'iTone the Great, the Great, the Great – Tr'iTone Trismégistos! I am the thrice-great DIABOLUS IN MUSICA," he shouted, raising his arms with a roaring, indeed even diabolical laugh.

As Tr'iTone triumphantly hit the play button, equally diabolical music started immediately.

Back into the darkness, Lionel ran screaming.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

The curtain rises on the corporate office of a major investment firm, Manhattan's JTI Associates, formerly Jott & Tittle, where it is almost midnight and one lone cubicle still remains lit. Adrian Faust is a 50-something mid-level manager who hasn't seen a promotion in over eight years despite dedicated work. Working late at night and alone in his cubicle, fraught with despair, he can sense his impending, inevitable demise, laid off after 24 years of service ("well, so much for loyalty"). 

Adrian imagines receiving a congratulatory plaque for 25 years with the company in his opening aria, 'Just One More Year,' looking forward in a few more years to a comfortable, well-earned retirement. Instead he's wondering when some innocent-looking e-mail, late on a Friday afternoon, will summon him to his supervisor's office. 


Such news, delivered carelessly and lacking any sympathy, will only make him feel less than human, as human resources go. "Coal or wood," he sings, "are resources, and humans quickly burn out." 


Adrian Faust, a dying ember, will be discarded like buckets of ash, the spent remains of a human resource.
 

Unfortunately, he comes to understand, as he looks back on his career, his whole life has been a failure, how he's never had the necessary spark, rising above the merely ordinary.
 

Realizing at this stage of life he lacks that reputation for success to make the transition into another company, too old now to find another job with comparable salary or self-worth. Never rising above "merely ordinary," he sings, "I would give anything to live my years here over again – anything!"
 

Then unexpectedly, a woman dressed in black Prada appears from the darkness, tall, statuesque, very stylish but thoroughly intimidating. Her name is Arachne Webb, the CEO and President of JTI Associates.
 

She offers to grant that very wish in return for one thing: his unquestioning loyalty – and his immortal soul. Adrian instantly agrees, quickly signing the contract, ignoring the usual fine print.
With a puff of smoke, he's suddenly transformed into a handsome 20-Something and almost immediately begins to earn promotions.
 

Young Faust soon occupies a top-floor office, leaving his cubicle in the middle of their headquarter's middle floor behind, earning huge bonuses and a reputation as a specialist in hostile take-overs. Next to Ms. Webb's lavish presidential suite, Adrian's windows give him a spectacular to-die-for view of the city below. And he moves from his efficiency apartment on the Upper West Side that looked out into an unsightly air-shaft into an East Side penthouse with a commanding view of Central Park.
 

He is sent on delicate, often clandestine missions to their European offices and single-handedly brings rival corporations to their knees. He buys companies and sells their assets, firing people and ruining careers. Whenever colleagues meet over lunch and discuss the career of Adrian Faust, they agree he's the quintessential heartless executive.
 

Aside from his sprawling weekend get-away in the woods of Pennsylvania’s Poconos, he owns luxurious vacation homes near San Francisco, Miami (though he hates beaches), and most recently, now, just outside Paris. He and Arachne maintain an impersonal relationship, the sex powerful and exhausting, the question who's screwing whom left unanswered.
 

Best of all, with his off-shore accounts, he hardly pays any taxes, future career advancements guaranteed to eliminate them. He grows immune to the misery of those people he's ruined financially.
 

But after such a meteoric rise with all his fame and wealth, despite having Arachne constantly at his side, Adrian discovers he's being haunted by the ghost of his girlfriend Daisy. She's the only woman he'd ever loved, a simple girl from Iowa who could type 120 words a minute.

She died in a horrible accident several years before Adrian's miraculous transformation, falling in front of a subway train, conveniently leaving little of the body behind – plus there were no witnesses.


Daisy, complaining about her work, often repeated nasty rumors about the CEO, not knowing upper management kept a firm control, monitoring everything workers said and did at work and probably at home: the 'Surveillance Quintet,' stretching from Webb's office to the lowly janitor's closet, was one of the opera's musical highlights.


Daisy's ghost says she hadn't committed suicide, even if the corporate culture ate away at her self-respect and tattered dignity. "I was unworthy of success, they'd complain, not part of the team."


The rest unsaid, Adrian soon finds her spectral visits wearing him down, awakening the conscience he'd thought he'd lost.


"Guilt is the bane of corporate greed," the newly self-knowing Adrian sings, "but what can one do about it?"


This soliloquy ends Act II which is where the incomplete opera stops.


Armin Schreiber could well relate to that, reading over the plot synopsis he'd been working on for Faustus, Inc., a small-time drudge in the festival's machine – "lots of work, little reward." It used to be fun, he thought, before everything became more Americanized, as if the Germans weren't efficient enough.

Wondering how the opera should end, he's sorry he'd agreed to prepare Moonbeam's Powerpoint presentation for tomorrow morning's symposium.

What ghostly apparition would come haunt him tonight, working well past midnight?

When Peter Moonbeam told him earlier about his skype interview with Sullivan though he had not yet listened to it, Schreiber argued it needed to be included in the symposium, without question.

Curious what information he'd find, Schreiber impatiently waited for it to open.

There was Sullivan, smiling: "Hello, testing... Peter?"

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Peter Moonbeam opened the door to his hotel room to see the fetchingly clad security officer named Kunegunde Nacht striking a bosomy pose and purring voluptuously, a welcome change from before. Whatever made her reconsider her previous indifference wasn't something to be questioned: he was just delighted to see her.

"Well, since I was in the neighborhood, I thought I'd stop by, if you're still thinking about that drink?" Her left hand smoothed down her dress, resting seductively over her thigh.

The trenchcoat aside, she seemed dressed for a night on the town as she sashayed her way into the room. Looking around, she took in her surroundings, then focused on his face.

"Have you been enjoying your visit to Schweinwald so far, Dr. Moonbeam?" she asked with her lips slightly pouting.

"Mmm, 'Doctor' – love the sound of that but please call me Peter," he told her, "I'm not really a doctor." Instead of the hotel bar, he suggested the Mobius Club in Memmingen.

Closing up the laptop, he explained, "I was just finishing up the day's work, so I'm ready to roll."

"Great – I just got off duty myself," she said, stretching her arms, "and I'm positively dying for a drink."

"Alrighty then," he said, "let me just pop into the bathroom, here..."

Moonbeam kept up a constant patter of small talk from the bathroom which Kunegunde acknowledged with the occasional grunt, too busy checking the laptop to see where he kept that interview. Depending on what Sullivan might've told him, there might be enough information to convince people the opera'd been finished.

There were enough rumors going around that not only was it complete, there could be back-up copies as well. Let conspiracy theorists think what they want, but rumor cannot become fact.

"So, Kunegunde – may I call you Kunegunde? – how was your day today," Peter called out cheerily from the bathroom.

"Fine – it was fine," she grunted back, locating the file easily enough.

"And no doubt getting better," she thought, quickly hitting the delete key. Then she discovered something annoying: an e-mail.

"I have this feeling it's going to get a whole lot better," he chirped while letting the water run. He continued in a similar lighthearted vein, nearly inaudible over the faucet.

"Damn it," she muttered under her breath, "another copy of the interview. How many of these things are there?"

There was also one in the memory stick, she noticed, increasingly annoyed, especially since her time was running out. She ripped it out and pocketed it, knowing what must be done.

Peter Moonbeam bounced out from behind the bathroom door just as Kunegunde pulled a sub-machinegun out from under her trench-coat, raking the room with sprays of bullets, his laptop exploding into fragments.

The look of horror on his face as he fell was priceless, collapsing on the floor, so much dead-weight.

After checking his left wrist, she dialed up Heller Rache and waited.

"Hello, sweetie, Momma's got a job for you."

She found no discernible pulse on Moonbeam, stepping over his lifeless form.

"Yeah, Moonbeam just sent that file to some guy named Armin Schreiber, that sap who works in Festival Programs?

"It would seem both Moonbeam's computer and Moonbeam himself have now crashed," she said, opening the door very quietly. "You'd better eliminate Schreiber and the file: no telling what he'll discover."

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Lost Chord: Chapter 33 (Part 2)

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, which begins with the first portion of Harrison Harty's journal to be written in code, the idea that the possible murder of Gottlieb Gutknaben could put Harty and his friends at risk. Questions abound as to who might have done this and why, not to mention why it was covered up, but investigations only lead them to further questions. Harty's lesson with Professor Böhm in which he describes how a composer's nerves are like piano wires which vibrate to an 'inner chord,' feeding our creativity. "Losing that, you can lose everything."

= = = = = = =

Chapter 33 (conclusion: a continuation of an excerpt from Harrison Harty's Schweinwald Journal)

It was difficult applying Böhm's helpful words after I left his office – I did not feel "up to the task": if any chord vibrated inside of me, it was tuned to fear. I nearly jumped out of my chair when I'd seen Porlock's face pushing itself forward with an insinuating smile.

"Sorry to bother you, Herr Director, in the midst of a lesson," Dr. Porlock said while ignoring me completely, "but I wonder if you could join me in Dean Bezsmyertnikov's office?"

Nothing more had been said between them, setting my "Inner Chord" jangling. Böhm sighed and stood up, looking tired, and nodded an apology in my direction before he scooted me out, suggesting that I check with Frau Steindreher about finding an empty hour to reschedule my lesson, perhaps for tomorrow.

"Considering the time you were already tardy plus the time already spent," she said as she considered what was available, "it looks like Director Böhm has an unscheduled forty-seven minutes tomorrow afternoon." She wrote me in – in pencil, naturally – as my schedule was accommodating, then urged me not to be late.

"Honestly, Percival," Böhm mumbled as he straightened his tie under his beard, "what is the need for all this?" Porlock said nothing but strode on ahead, officious, stiff and ominously portentous.

As I headed toward the practice rooms to work on some counterpoint or at least write in my journal, I noticed two figures walking toward me, both of them immediately recognizable. Lost in conversation and shrouded by cigar smoke, the skinny, angular form of Professor Fabbro gesticulated with evident enthusiasm. The rotund and comparatively laconic figure of Dr. Johannes Brahms listened intently, his hands tightly clasped behind his back. Fabbro nodded almost imperceptibly as they passed, but Brahms remained completely oblivious.

"So, I'm working on this E-flat Major Piano Trio and completely stuck," Brahms was muttering half under his breath, "but you say these numbers of yours will help me get... unstuck?"

I lost Fabbro's whispered response as they moved further down the hall, wondering what foul-smelling bat-shit they were smoking.

It was a shame Liszt had left so precipitously after his recital, not even bothering to appear at the reception. Was it animosity at the little minds who booed those startling improvisations? Though I didn't like them at first – they made my skin crawl – I would have liked hearing them again. Or, since they were improvisations, after all, what more he would offer, following in the same vein as those. They were the complete opposite of anything in his usual populist vein. It would have been a good experience for a student to hear how he explained what he was thinking: how did he achieve those unusual sonorities; what was in his mind? Also interesting would have been to hear a debate with Dr. Brahms even if it became nothing but posturing.

Music was becoming so thoroughly polarized between the Modernists and the Traditionalists, there was little civil discourse between both factions, screaming and calling each other silly names in a most childish manner. Whatever constructive arguments flew amongst the students, rather than help the situation various members of the faculty worsened it. Fabbro had stood precariously on his chair and shouted imprecations at Liszt, how this "ignominious moment" marked music's death; Bezsmyertnikov whistled and stomped his approval of this "music of the future."

Later, then, today, Mahler, Rott and I sat waiting in Bezsmyertnikov's seminar, the only class he would offer this summer, which he called "Nuance and Mockery in the Critique of New Music." As this would be our first class meeting held since Liszt's recital, there was considerable anticipation in the room. It was even rumoured he extended an invitation to Brahms and Professor Fabbro to join him for today's discussion, so it was generally assumed his lateness was intentionally for dramatic effect. Rott had suggested we divide ourselves according to our own critical reactions, considering almost everyone committed themselves quite readily: those in favour sitting on the left; opposed, sitting on the right. It seemed anyone who might be uncommitted, hooted down as spineless moderates, should occupy the dangerous no-man's-land in between.

While this blustering swept back and forth, I wondered about these meetings, the ones Bezsmyertnikov was holding in his office: in addition to Porlock, were others involved than Knussbaum and Professor Böhm? Could they have been addressing this crisis for and against Liszt's recital and not discussing Gutknaben's death after all? It gave me my first opportunity to feel calmer about the day, considering how Knussbaum's paranoia ignited my own. I took out my journal and continued writing down some personal observations.

The increasingly rowdy students immediately became quiet when the door opened suddenly, all eyes turning in anticipation and curiosity but only to release an immediate and deep sigh of universal disappointment when it turned out to be merely Carmilla Varné, Bezsmyertnikov's erstwhile assistant, who apologized that the Dean was delayed. She explained he had been involved in a series of important meetings on a particularly egregious and contentious subject but chose to say nothing more as she strode about the room.

Carmilla no sooner paused beside me and looked at my journal than her long finger stabbed at the page.

"Herr Harty, please explain what exactly it is that you are writing?"

I said, "to discourage others copying my notes, I write in codes."

"Would not English be sufficient?" she scoffed.

When Bezsmyertnikov finally swept into the room, all eyes continued to wait, looking intently towards the door in eager anticipation even as the Dean stood at the podium and opened his notes. Looking up with a somewhat bemused expression, he called for our attention, coughing nervously one or two more times.

"I apologize for my delay," he said, "but it was unavoidable, unfortunately. Let us speak no more about it." This struck me as odd as nobody had spoken about it yet.

Bezsmyertnikov was, despite his clearly Russian physiognomy, a bit of a dandy, a dapper-looking gentleman compared to bearded Germans, with his pointed goatee, slicked-back hair and a penchant for French cigarettes. Like Carmilla's, the eloquent German he spoke was heavily accented in French, typical of most Russians on the Continent.

The unofficial joke about this seminar's subject – teaching composers to become critics – turned it into a thinly veiled "membership campaign," one designed to swell the ranks of critics with otherwise failed composers. A critic himself who once studied composition, Bezsmyertnikov trained primarily in Paris, most Russians being merely dilettantes until recently. But there was so little need for so many composers, he said, that even with all our advanced training it was not always possible everyone who studied would accomplish his dream.

He stressed at every class how very few of us would succeed – one, with any luck, among the near-great – though naturally each of us were convinced we would be that One. The usual comment was we must not make enemies amongst our colleagues: who might someday become an influential critic? It is always good to have such critics firmly on our side. Even if we failed to make our mark on music as composers, we might manage to influence its future.

These lectures never failed to bring me down a peg or two, directly following my confidence-boosting lessons with Böhm. Bezsmyertnikov struck me as the perpetual siren song of the Dark Side, imbuing ingrained failure with an unacceptable compromise, which I resolved to try my best to combat through prodigious application.

This lecture would not become a discussion about Liszt's strange new music nor about what he'd called its "ineluctable modality," fighting for the future of music by pitting one side against another. The professor, after taking a deep breath, perhaps remembering some distant pleasure, picked up where he'd left off before.

"I ended our last meeting," he reminisced, "talking about our poor Schumann, famous critic but composer struggling for recognition, likely otherwise forgotten but for his wife or his famous protege, Brahms.

"Herr Mahler, if you please," he said, "say you become a critic after no one will perform your compositions: you are forced to review performances of music other than your own. No doubt, you would have your own agenda regarding music and aesthetics, but how would you feel about that?"

He continued looking around the room again, not waiting for Mahler's response, and asked Herr Rott what he would do, reviewing a famous conductor who'd already refused to play his unplayable symphony. Rott, already sweating, squirmed in his seat and twisted his legs together, stammering unintelligibly before Bezsmyertnikov cut him off.

Looking at me, he scowled at length before asking a similar question, though with more edge to his voice. "Harty, someone gives you a bad review: would you resort... to murder?"

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

I remember nothing of what happened during the rest of the class after everyone desperately tried to hide their amusement. Of course, to my way of thinking, this was no idle joke. Bezsmyertnikov was letting each of us know he was 'on' to us and threatening us to be very careful. When the end of class finally arrived, he dismissed us with nothing beyond an airy wave of his hand, but reserved for the three of us a haughty yet malevolent glance. As we wandered out of the classroom, Ethel waited impatiently for us, barely able to contain her intense excitement. She looked as if she swallowed something and was about to erupt. We didn't want the explosion to happen within the hearing of Bezsmyertnikov, so we hurried her down the hall.

"Whatever is the matter," she kept muttering, "have you lost your minds," highly incensed by our brusque and ungentlemanly behaviour. We managed to get her further away before Bezsmyertnikov left the classroom. "Stop pushing me this instant," she cried until we had to stop or risk creating a possibly worse scene.

"Come," I said in a conspiratorial whisper, "we need to have privacy! Someone could easily overhear anything we say." We dodged into the first practice room that we could find empty.

What had so excited her, in fact, she began breathlessly to explain, was overhearing something she probably shouldn't have.

"There I was, standing in the hall, minding my own business, naturally."

Rott was about to make some sarcastic comment she would find annoying but I stopped him before he could.

"Then I heard their voices from around the corner where I stood. I was sure they couldn't see me."

When she paused as if for effect, I blurted out impatiently, "and...?"

Despite the noise from a near-by pianist, she crouched down and whispered, "It was Brahms talking quietly with Fabbro. Apparently there's a special dinner party at the Falkenstein's tonight, very private."

"And they immediately invited you," Rott complained. He desperately wanted to arrange a meeting with Brahms about his symphony.

To make a long story slightly shorter, given the limited time available, she reminded us she'd met Brahms in Leipzig while she was staying with his friends the Herzogenbergs, also her teachers, and it bothered her that the whole time she'd been at Schweinwald he's done nothing but completely ignore her. Regardless, he and Fabbro were talking about something very secretively, something "clandestine," but something Fabbro would "reveal" to Brahms which, for reasons of "personal security" had been "hidden in Falkenstein's basement."

That reminded me that I, too, had overheard both of them talking, probably only minutes before or after this, how Brahms, finding himself stuck, thought this would help him become unstuck.

"Something special in the basement," Mahler smiled, "like maybe a wine cellar?"

"Or water from the Fountain of Inspiration?"

Of the four of us, Rott was always the one most likely to come up with the least likely solution, an imagination completely unencumbered by the rigors of ingrained craftsmanship and training. His was a mind with only slight connections between fantasy and reality, something at times Mahler may have envied. We knew that Fabbro was the strictest disciplinarian on the Schweinwald faculty and such a fountain was entirely ludicrous. But considering the secrecy that was involved, it must be something momentous.

Since I could see no obvious connection between this and Gutknaben's murder, I had no idea why I went along with Ethel's sneaking over to the Falkensteins to spy on this dinner, but clearly something was going on beneath the Academy's placid surface implying, perhaps, in some odd way, it did. Was Gutknaben killed because he'd found out something inappropriate was going on and someone thought he should be eliminated? And wasn't it possible, I reminded her, we'd meet the same fate? Nonetheless, nothing would stop her and of course we three followed suit, standing by the front parlor's window, waiting. She had made her own arrangements and packed us a light supper. Before long, Brahms, Fabbro and the Hammerschlags got into the Director's fiacre and headed downhill in a stately manner.

We then hurried out a side door, walking quickly to the stable where the groom Hannes, apparently sweet on Ethel, waited with a rickety phaeton pulled by an old mare named Grimgerde. We were careful not to be seen – everyone else was at dinner – since we'd be breaking several significant regulations. Ethel immediately leaned over and yanked the reins out of Mahler's hands though he knew enough not to argue: her bounding over chairs, backs and all, made her an intimidating presence.

The wagon, such as it was, took off at a leisurely pace, trotting modestly down the path toward the village, our presumed goal should anyone catch us and wonder where we're going. However, it wasn't too long before we'd arrive at the Falkenstein's gate where we'd hide Grimgerde in the bushes. But something apparently spooked the horse because, no sooner under the trees, I realized the carriage was aptly named, considering Phaeton, Apollo's son, nearly crashed the Sun Chariot into the earth.

It was all I could do to keep Rott from falling out as we careened from side to side. We would soon pass Brahms in the stately fiacre, at this rate. It wouldn't surprise me that somehow HWIDNWTN knew what we were doing and we'd all fall to our demise.

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Lost Chord: Act III, Chapter 33 (Part 1)


(you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, the brief conclusion to Act II, Zenn's sanctuary has been invaded by agents from both SHMRG and the International Music Police. As the smoke clears and it's discovered LauraLynn has been abducted, IMP Special Forces director Leahy-Hu explains what her investigation has so far discovered. But that doesn't answer the question: if that wasn't Dhabbodhú, then who is he and why is he after what now turns out to be a statue of Beethoven?

*** ***** ******** ***** ***
ACT III
*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Chapter 33

...being the 2nd installment of Master Harrison Harty's Journal, Summer of 1880
(which, for some reason, suddenly continues in code)

...that I should proceed cautiously, holding a mirror to Brahms and Mahler before finding myself reflected in its circumstances: if in fact Gutknaben had been murdered, was I also in danger? My new friends seemed more than distressed by these sudden possibilities thrown into our anxious if otherwise happy midst. What peril had Gutknaben found himself in; how would it affect us? As it was, none of us could sleep after discovering the body and sat up long into the night discussing various possibilities about what had happened but especially why it happened and why in particular practically everyone on the faculty seemed so quick to dismiss it as an unfortunate accident. We four friends sat in Mahler and Rott's room talking about it until long after the sun had come up and we heard the bell announcing it was now time for breakfast. Ethel was the lone voice of reason while Mahler sank into silence and Rott ran wild with numerous theories. He seemed to be obsessively focused on the mysterious appearance of Brahms, despite no one else having seen him, until I also pointed out how Knussbaum had shown up almost immediately.

Once everyone settled down to their breakfast after Knussbaum improvised his fugue, this morning based on "Vor deinen Thron," Dean Bezsmyertnikov stepped up to the podium and spoke solemnly to everyone, confirming rather matter-of-factly that news then circulating throughout the school was true, that young Gottlieb Gutknaben was found dead.

"It was, and I stress this," he continued quietly, "an unfortunate accident, a most tragic accident, considering all that, that a student so talented should have died so uselessly so young."

It made me wonder what a useful death would have been like, how that could have been any better, when Bezsmyertnikov announced that, while avoiding details, local police had already arrived, thoroughly examined the scene and its particulars and agreed with the assessment already reached by the faculty: "an accident."

While everyone else, clearly stunned by the announcement, was watching Bezsmyertnikov closely, I instead watched the face of Director Böhm and noticed he in turn was watching Knussbaum, seated by the organ, whose face was turned downward, a frown barely hidden by the beard he constantly stroked apparently with considerable misgivings. I sensed the students' sudden restraint in not shouting out their approval when Bezsmyertnikov announced morning classes were canceled, despite my never finishing Fabbro's counterpoint assignment meant this was welcome news. The chapel would be open if we needed a place to meditate, something he strongly urged us to consider, and Percival Porlock, Schweinwald's chaplain, was available for anyone needing spiritual guidance. Like many fellow students, we four friends chose to stand in contemplation by the statue where Gutknaben had died.

By the time we managed to arrive at the castle's Great Landing, a considerable crowd had already begun to gather around a traditional mourning wreath placed there with white lilies and edelweiss. Several students, including many I didn't know, came over to express condolences, a few adding, "find who did this." It surprised me that, given the circumstances, there were others who believed this had not been a simple accident. It made me feel even more resolved to figure out what happened.

We continued standing, well after everyone else had left or passed by, then looked at each other before looking around to make sure we were, by this time, completely alone and unobserved. Mahler, stroking his beard again, had been getting increasingly impatient with everyone, dropping hints we wanted to be alone. As the deep furrows in his brow darkened over his intense stare, I could see him concentrating on something. His habitual foot-tapping now became less noticeable despite his clearly increasing annoyance. A head shorter than Rott or myself, Mahler was still a presence except when 'the tic' was upon him, this irritating tapping of his right foot or his uneven, unrhythmical walk. We all, perhaps, had our little idiosyncrasies but given his ill-proportioned stature, these were without doubt difficult to ignore.

"There is nothing to show it was even an accident," Mahler said, "if it weren't for this one small bloodstain. Otherwise he could have simply dropped dead – as if his heart stopped."

"Are you thinking he might have been..." Rott paused, "...scared to death?"

"That," I considered, "sounds a little far-fetched."

I'd read enough 'penny-dreadfuls' in my day, particularly Matthew Lewis' The Monk, to know one could open secret passageways that would lead to a hidden room where someone might be imprisoned.

But no sooner had Mahler noticed a fragment of a bloody fingerprint than we heard the echo of footsteps coming quickly toward us down the steps from the faculty residences above. Mahler showed me how someone, pushing against the statue's base just there, had gotten their finger in Gutknaben's blood.

It was Ethel who first saw who was coming and went to distract him with a bit of conversation.

"Dr. Porlock," she said, coughing, "what a horrid day this has been!"

"Just so, my dear," Porlock said impatiently, not slowing down his pace while producing a rag wreaking of carbolic. "And these rumours I hear of murder? Most dreadful," he said, clucking. "Who first would be suspected of such? Those who find the body!" He laughed, wiping away the bloody stain.

"Do you think Old Porlock was trying to frighten us," Rott asked, raking his fingers through his thick hair.

"He apparently did a good job of frightening you," Ethel told him.

We were hurrying back to my room, sitting anywhere while avoiding the bed Gutknaben would never sleep in again.

"But what did he mean by that," I wondered aloud, twisting uncomfortably, trying not to look at Gutknaben's things. Ethel, with obvious superiority, sat right down at his desk, totally unconcerned.

"You don't think one of our professors could've killed Gutknaben, do you?" Rott looked uncomfortable at the thought of it. "I mean, what would be the point? Why would they do that?"

"Why would anyone commit murder," Mahler mumbled, "except for some specific reason? Very likely, someone has to gain something."

"But it makes no sense with Gutknaben," Ethel said, sounding very methodical. "Who was going to gain from killing him?" She began mindlessly poking around his desk and left her question hang.

"Perhaps he had a composition," Mahler suggested, "that someone wanted to steal, maybe pass it off as his own?"

Rott continued to twist his legs nervously. "I've got a symphony – maybe..."

"Yes, Hans, we know," Ethel chided him.

"The difference is, Rott, nobody'd want to steal your symphony," I joked.

Ethel sat drumming her fingers over some papers on Gutknaben's desk in a gesture that began to annoy me; then she stared up toward the ceiling as if lost in thought.

"Did either of you notice anything about the body," she asked casually, "anything that was – well, different or unexpected?"

"Nothing beyond the wound on his forehead," I said, looking somewhat confused. "It hadn't struck me as that serious."

"It was a jagged wound, wasn't it," Rott said, "not a bump?"

"Right, because a jagged wound would have been from a sharp corner, not a smooth surface, am I right?"

"So, the bloodstain marks the corner of some opening on the pedestal?"

"And the fingerprint would belong to whoever closed it later," Mahler assumed, "except that Old Porlock's wiped it away."

Ethel, now quiet, was reading a paper she'd found on the desk, having lost any interest in our conversation.

"More to the point," Rott continued, "is who opened it and why?"

I still thought it might be the opening to some secret passage leading to some place underneath the statue.

"You think it's a secret Gutknaben knew, somebody else wanted to know but yet it was worth killing for?"

Rott sounded like he didn't believe me but he suggested no alternatives.

"But remember, nobody else had been there after we sounded the alarm except," I pointed out, "either faculty or administration."

"So it's someone who's on the staff?"

"Or maybe Brahms," Rott suggested.

"What I'm still wondering about," I added, "is what Professor Böhm said right before Gutknaben disappeared from the reception."

"But this doesn't make the least sense," Ethel muttered, slowly turning around, like it was something we didn't already know. "This piece of paper on Gutknaben's desk – Harty, is this his handwriting?"

She handed me some old manuscript paper with strange symbols on it which clearly were not written by Gutknaben.

"Perhaps it was one of his assignments," I pondered, shrugging my shoulders. The bell sounded for classes to resume.

"You haven't seen this before?" she asked. "A fine detective you'd make!"

After Ethel pocketed the paper and left, we went about our day though it was difficult for us to concentrate, after sitting through a fairly somber lunch, then attending our afternoon classes. The rest of my schedule was light, just Old Hammerschlag's harmony class and my piano lesson with Frau Hammerschlag. I wanted to talk to Professor Böhm, but according to his secretary, the suitably hatchet-faced gorgon, Frau Medusa Steindreher, he was unfortunately involved in meetings all afternoon and was otherwise unavailable.

Much of my time was spent day-dreaming, reminiscing about Lewis' The Monk which I had read as a child and which kept coming back to me, especially one particularly dramatic scene where the heroine's rescued after having been imprisoned in a secret vault, left to die beneath a cemetery statue.

Whenever I managed to walk through the Great Landing past Sechter's monument, there were always several other students standing about, so I never got to check the pedestal for a secret panel when I noticed someone removed all the flowers placed in Gutknaben's memory that had been piling up all day. Returning to my room before dinner, then, I found an official notice which had been posted on my door: my things were taken to another room and Gutknaben's had been removed.

My new location, in a different hall far distant from Mahler's room, had previously been occupied by an Italian who, quite predictably, had already left Schweinwald for lack of any progress. My new roommate, a taciturn Russian named Ivan Nakyablokhoff, spoke no English and possessed a most intimidatingly churlish attitude. When I reported that some of my notebooks seemed to be missing, one of the proctors apologized rather lamely they must've been jumbled with Gutknaben's things and returned to his family. So instead, I spent the night trying to sleep on Mahler's couch after an unsatisfactory dinner with guarded conversation until our curiosity, newly revived, managed to get the better of us. We then decided, under cover of darkness, to steal down the hallway and examine the statue's pedestal more thoroughly.

We had no sooner reached our goal, aided by our dim candles, and started pushing and prodding around the statue when we all simultaneously became aware we were not in fact alone. Watching us from the shadows was someone tall, dressed all in black and accompanied by a large black cat. I immediately recognized Bezsmyertnikov's assistant, Carmilla Varné, and her cat Czerny (one assumed he'd been named after Beethoven's pupil). She also edited Dunkle Welle – 'Dark Wave' – a periodical espousing modernist aesthetics.

Stepping forward into our pool of light, she was wearing dark make-up that accentuated the paleness of her face, diaphanous sleeves of black gauze giving her the appearance of having wings. In her insinuating hiss of a voice, she threatened to tell Bezsmyertnikov – "if you know what I mean, Werner!"

Once we stopped running and reached safety, locking the door behind us, Mahler accused Rott of rhapsodizing over the occult, seeing vampires when there was nothing to suggest it beyond over-stimulated nerves. Rott and I both read a great deal about such unsavory things, unable to disregard them quite so easily.

"The problem," I argued, "is there is too much to suggest it but not enough one could prove it." Nonetheless, the three of us spent an uncomfortable night unable to sleep.

The next morning after breakfast, we found Professor Knussbaum in his studio, a space little more than a massive clutter surrounding a score-laden grand piano topped by a huge bust of Beethoven. The inner room, if one could navigate the numerous piles of manuscripts, was where an assistant could copy parts.

"You know, boys, I've never been backward about coming forward," he muttered, "even when I've said more than enough, but you know how everything can be traced back to the Master."

We knew how Old Knussbaum (who must by now be over eighty) never failed to mention he'd met Beethoven, a spindly teen-aged dance-band musician at Teplitz the summer Beethoven was there. Friends for the rest of his life, he ran errands for him, especially regarding a close lady-friend outside Vienna.

Now when the Master died, Knussbaum cut a lock of Beethoven's hair and secretly left it with this special friend. In turn, she gave him their letters which, as requested, he burned.

"It pained me so to do that," he said, wiping his brow, "but he wanted her to have it."

He'd placed the hair in a locket, silver and beautiful, easily recognizable, which returned one summer, addressed to him. This locket was passed on to Sechter and eventually to Professor Böhm.

"Was that the locket I'd seen Gottlieb Gutknaben wearing after Liszt's recital? Böhm had placed it around his neck. Now I remember – he wasn't wearing it when we found his body!"

Before I could ask him, "But why," Knussbaum nodded toward the door with a cautionary finger to his lips.

After hiding us in the copyist's room, he opened his studio door to find Dr. Porlock ready to knock. Summoned to a special meeting with Bezsmyertnikov, Knussbaum at first excused himself.

"I'm sorry," Porlock said, "but your presence is urgently required. Please hurry."

Knussbaum said he must first clean his pens.

"Then join us as soon as you've put things away," Porlock sniffed.

Knussbaum hurried us into the fireplace, telling us to make no turns. We found ourselves in a dark passageway.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

The biggest problem, perhaps, with trying to write regularly in this journal is that writing regularly is not so easy, the time available being what it is, compared to the time required. No sooner had I gotten around to finally recording this climactic moment than it was time for another class. It occurred to me to wait until we had achieved our goal before writing out a complete, detailed account, except it's like taking notes in class to prepare for the exam. So, if I failed to keep up with events as they happened, I am sure I would forget things: who knows what tiny item, in hindsight, might prove to have significance? What matter of detail or strange turn, at the moment seemingly minor, would later turn out to be monumental? It seemed odd that I and my friends should feel so strongly about what had happened to my poor roommate in the face of almost universal opposition regarding his most unfortunate death. It was as if some inexplicable conspiracy arose to keep the truth from making any sense of the tragedy. Every time I pondered some new question, it wasn't answers I found but a whole new array of questions. By working these out in my journal, perhaps some conclusion is possible.

It had not occurred to me before that we would find ourselves involved in some enterprise that was dangerous, but why did we have to hide when Porlock interrupted our visit? Why was Knussbaum concerned Porlock would see him talking with some students unless we were unwittingly breaking some rules? Why was the Dean of Students' assistant roaming the halls enforcing curfew, something usually left to the upperclass proctors, unless Carmilla was specifically on the look-out only at one specific location? What if it wasn't just some students Knussbaum was seen talking to but it was we four in particular, if rumours of our quest to find Gutknaben's murderer were unwelcome ones? If students knew there were too many unanswered questions regarding Gutknaben's death, who would find such skepticism a threat?

And so I find myself sitting at my desk late at night, "studying" by the guttering light of my candle, listening to the implacable snores of my roommate, the menacing bully Nokyablokhoff, a mindful presence even when fast asleep, a nosy one when awake, always looking over my shoulder, ever vigilant. The code seemed like a double safety since he understood no English, except that I was writing everything backwards: would that give my secret purpose away more than by writing normally? Yet this wasn't just protection from him or anyone he reported to, assuming he was another spy for Bezsmyertnikov, but protection against any other prying eye who'd wonder what I'm writing. The code was difficult enough to familiarize myself with, writing al rovescio, but I soon mastered it quite naturally.

And yet I see I have just written "another spy for Bezsmyertnikov." Why did that suddenly pop into my head? Both he and Nokyablokhoff are Russians, true, and Carmilla is Bezsmyertnikov's assistant. Am I somehow assuming the Dean is the one behind Gutknaben's murder and he is trying to protect himself? Considering other notebooks of mine had 'disappeared' when my belongings were moved, this journal cannot attract attention to itself: so I'll start taking all my notes for every class in code.

Could that mean that Bezsmyertnikov – how I hate even writing his name – might perceive us as a danger to himself and that we need to be eliminated as, perhaps, he eliminated Gutknaben? Here we are, running down a dark passageway through ancient castle walls, keeping ourselves hidden from... whom – and why? Why couldn't we have just remained out of sight in Knussbaum's study until it would be safe to leave? Was Porlock spying for Him Whom I Do Not Wish to Name? If HWIDNWTN had killed Gutknaben because the boy knew something he shouldn't, it stood to reason he'd kill us to protect himself regarding whatever Gutknaben knew which we might now uncover. Which led us to yet another question which needed to be answered: "what the hell was going on, here?"

I should beg any future reader's pardon for using such salubrious language unbecoming to those on the verge of gentlemanhood but I am only quoting Ethel who never considered herself a gentleman. She wondered what was behind Knussbaum's concern, what other meanings there were, while Mahler tried looking behind the metaphor. Rott dismissed Knussbaum as a batty antique – "he must be close sixty!" – with all his talk of secret letters, then shoving us off through his fireplace into some dark secret passage.

Shoving a well-spent candlestick into my hand, Knussbaum said, "Make no turns," his hand meanwhile weaving back and forth, "until you reach a kind of 'T,' then press the stone gingerly." In fact, we found ourselves in a tunnel making nothing but turns, a tunnel made of nothing but stone. Where this path would eventually lead us, none of us could say, nor who might greet us upon arrival. One thing was abundantly clear: this tunnel was clean and frequently used.

I can only hope in the future, should anything happen to us, someone follows this journal to the end and discovers what perhaps we have not or only come close to; because quite clearly all is not well this summer at Castle Schweinwald, that there is more beneath the surface.

Another break, quickly overcome by sleep before I could finish this entry, desperately trying to keep myself abreast of events: soon, I will be so hopelessly behind, catching up will be impossible. Anyway, we'd reached the 'T' Knussbaum mentioned but there seemed many stones, all of which we tried pushing against. Rott pointed out Knussbaum had said 'gingerly' and, being red-haired, he thought it meant he should do the pushing. He was also the tallest, though not nearly as tall as Knussbaum. I suggested he reach up and try the keystone of this archway with two small holes just beneath it. Peering through the holes, Rott saw nothing but a poorly lit space. When the wall gave way, gliding open, a draft extinguished our candle, leaving just enough room to squeeze through.

We found ourselves on the Great Landing not far from Sechter's statue, having walked through the portrait of Director Böhm which now, with equal silence, proceeded to glide effortlessly back into place. So this was how Knussbaum mysteriously appeared the night of the murder – and perhaps explained Herr Brahms' mysterious disappearance. Opposite us, I saw my roommate standing with his back to us: I doubt he noticed our sudden arrival. The bell had already rung: I was late for my composition lesson.

When Frau Secretary Steindreher looked up and croaked "You're tardy, Herr Harty," I apologized I'd been lost in thought. "Contemplating another compositional conundrum, I wouldn't doubt," she sighed in mild exasperation. "I'm convinced composers are all the same with all the same excuses, the most disorganized creatures in the world."

"That's not entirely fair, Ma'am," I stuttered. "I'm sure Professor Fabbro's different. I've never met anyone quite so organized."

"And thank Heaven for that," she sniffed. "But Professor Böhm is waiting."

It was reassuring to think Frau Steindreher, usually so efficient and brusque, could take even two seconds to chat, that someone behind such a foreboding exterior could like anyone, especially me. But once past the gorgon's fearsome gate, inside was warmth and ease: Professor Böhm looked up and smiled welcomingly.

He apologized for having only just returned from a meeting with Bezsmyertnikov, frowning a little at the taste it left, glad that I was only later still and didn't have to wait. "Otherwise," he said, nodding toward the door, "she would still be complaining if I had kept a student waiting."

As we seated ourselves at the piano, he held out his hand and closed my sketchbook with a smile. "How have you been taking all this? You seem a bit preoccupied."

Without getting into any of the details or mentioning Gutknaben by name, he said how 'this' had affected everyone, sitting back comfortably, a tall thin man with an expansive graying beard. His gray eyes were deep with concern as he nodded his head, listening to me as I unburdened myself.

Böhm began quietly at first, how "a composer is a bundle of nerves pulled taut like piano wires" – he chuckled – "how, in order to resonate, composers must feel up to the task. If we are in tune with ourselves, then," he added, "we succeed. If not..." He left the statement hang.

"We each have this 'Inner Chord' that vibrates to our own frequency. It is this which feeds our creativity. Remember – losing that, you can lose everything!"

Someone knocked at the door.


= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014