Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Lost Chord: Act II, Chapter 17 (Part 1)


In the previous installment, Dr. Kerr, LauraLynn and D'Arcy discover their escape has led them into the midst of the Schweinwald Festival's opening night gala performance of The Barber of Seville during the first act finale which catches everyone by surprise, not least Dr. Kerr, LauraLynn and D'Arcy. The three pursuing IMP agents prepare to follow them onto the stage as mayhem ensues. The audience loved it!

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ACT II
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CHAPTER 17

Being the first installment of Master Harrison Harty's Journal, Summer of 1880

We began arriving at Schweinwald from across Europe – well, mostly Germany and Austria, two from Great Britain (including one Londoner) in addition to one rather unexpected American (all students of Schweinwald graduates) but none, as one expected, from France, and those few who originated from Italy would, naturally, not last long under the rigorous training we all dreaded (the 'Lax Latins,' as my Uncle William called them, for obvious reasons). Like me, we were all young lads seeking advanced levels of study offered at the Academy of Schweinwald Castle where every summer experts of wide renown gathered from across the continent in order to engage the musical arts in such thoroughly concentrated circumstances as to make their students better composers.

Tearing myself away from the arms of my beloved mother may have been perhaps the most challenging thing I had to do to start this journey into the heart of The Continent, a place so infinitely farther than our occasional summer holiday to Belfast which itself always seemed to take forever. Gazing at the globe sitting in a dusty corner of Father’s study, I inched my fingers across its surface, scarcely able to find Belfast, at first, Munich barely three inches away.

I was told no member of my family had ever gone farther from home than London, in fact trips the comparatively short distance to Belfast were rare enough from little Hillsborough. County Down had seemed all the world in this corner of Ireland with England obviously so utterly far away. That didn’t stop us from naturally thinking of ourselves as thoroughly English, our Yorkshire ancestors settling here after Kinsale, my father always one to look at the Greater Scheme of Things. It was assumed I needed, before my Continental trip, a proper holiday, some slight encounter with our magical capital, away from home but still surrounded by people speaking my own language, though I soon discovered our London cousins with whom I stayed regarded us as hopeless provincials – and worse, Irish.

The city I soon discovered was vast and noisy, crowded and filthy and I immediately hated every bit of it, especially as my arrogant cousins lived quite far from anything of note. Leaving London, I was as glad to put the Morgans behind me as they were to see my back. True, I missed the familiarity of language, if not family, once across the Channel and quickly headed toward Paris. The train itself, a bubble of English air, eventually burst in Munich. It surprised me as I reached the coach taking us to Ottobeuren to meet an English girl already there who brusquely dismissed me when I wondered ought girls be studying composition. I had hoped to practice my German on her but she said my Irish accent made me utterly incomprehensible.

In Ottobeuren, I met a few more students who had already arrived from Austria and Budapest earlier in the day, with only just enough time to jump on another, more decrepit carriage that bounced along a winding country road past an ancient farmhouse before we reached an even more ancient-looking castle. If Father saw fit to give me a Harty Farewell upon seeing me onto the boat bound for London, I realized, arriving in Schweinwald, how I longed for a hearty welcome.

I’d been christened with the horribly alliterative name of Harold Harrison Harty, the eldest son of one John Jasper Harty, whose younger brother, William Michael Harty, was but ten years my senior, the outer sons, separated by four intervening daughters, of Cuthbert Clevenger Harty, one of the best musicians in Dromore. My father, lacking any talent, began his career as a simple tradesman, married young and later becoming a teacher after the economic troubles of the 1860s ruined many such family businesses. My uncle followed happily in his father’s footsteps as a church organist and soon found himself a comfortable position where despite the drawbacks of youth he proved both respected and popular. Barely six months old by that summer, his fourth and latest child they christened Herbert Hamilton Harty, called Hammie.

Though both first and middle names confirmed my nickname would be "Harry," my name, usually listed as "Harty, Harold Harrison," led the mindlessly cruel to call me instead "Old Harty Har Har." After years of being taunted as "Har-Har," I could not wait to leave home if for no other reason. I eventually chose to style myself as Harrison Harty, dropping the Harold altogether, which at least sounded more patrician except in the mouths of common Londoners who called me 'Arry 'Arty.

Not that I had much hope for any considerable improvement just because my new school was located in Germany: did smart students there struggle under the chafe of stupid bullies, too? The language aside, I hoped they were more serious if for no other reason than we were all musicians. Grandfather told us proudly what he knew of the old Schweinwald Academy, how highly it had once been regarded, his own teacher, the inestimable Gilbert Pook, studying there as a lad.

Whether the school was famous with a great reputation and learned professors who, perhaps, might have known Beethoven personally was not really what a hopeful young student wanted most to know. Whether the training was easy or the professors fair, who could say? More my concern: were the students friendly?

It’s possible you would assume, whoever reads this at some time hence, that the grandson and nephew of musicians should walk effortlessly on an easy path toward becoming a musician himself. My father, however, was the only one of his siblings to rebel at taking music lessons as a child. It was one thing for his sisters, this lady-like accessory that might help them find suitable and appreciative husbands, but for him watching his father play or conduct had no magic. He excused himself for having no observable talent despite Grandfather’s cajoling him how he hadn’t even tried to find it, but really, Aunt Tilda said, he simply felt too manly for it. He chafed under the custom of sitting through family musicales after dinner, useless habits he considered boring and pretentious. No one could justifiably accuse my father of being unaware of beauty for he was not necessarily rude or uncivilized. Beauty, he would point out, was visible in anything for the looking. But if culture meant books and concerts or paintings on a wall, then, yes, Father was most certifiably uncultured. Even as a boy with a rather rough-hewn exterior, he loved to spend an afternoon whittling away at wood, sometimes making toys for his sisters or just to pass the time.

He dreamt, he later told me, of wanting to build great buildings except there was little chance a boy like him could get the necessary training here in the Irish countryside. Had it not been for the famines of the 1840s, his family might have been able to afford it. But as luck (or fate) would intervene – this Greater Scheme of Things – he was apprenticed to a furniture-maker’s shop which by the tender age of 21 he had quite inadvertently inherited. Following his transition from craftsman to businessman, he earned a respectable reputation yet occasionally thought of building great buildings if only he’d had the chance or the time or good fortune. This was not so much a question of talent, he felt, as a matter of skill and sheer determination.

Once Little William came along and as a small child discovered magic in this music being made around him, the elder brother softened perhaps the slightest bit and offered no argument once his younger brother not only eagerly took to his lessons at the piano but quickly excelled in them. The boy became proficient enough to follow Grandfather onto the organ bench before his feet could reach the pedals; after various changes in his trousers’ length, he played the occasional service. That my grandfather, already an old man turning gray and noticeably arthritic, could make such beautiful music was wonderful enough but that Uncle William did so, too, mesmerized me as a child. The benefit to having an uncle who was like an older brother drew me even closer to the music.

My father’s biggest disappointment with this fascination of mine came from realizing I'd no interest following him into the shop until after the business failed and there was nothing left to inherit. Understandably, Father found nothing so rewarding compared to working with his hands, having worked with wood all his life. But when Uncle William held up his own delicate hands, fingers wiggling, the furniture-maker understood and realized the truth. My winning a scholarship to Schweinwald then only helped his understanding further.

It was not a particularly long talk as such talks often went when he sat me down and asked me what it was I dreamt about becoming, once I became a man. Was I perhaps old enough, he wondered, to be thinking such things, a time that seemed so far away? When he was told I'd composed the music Uncle William just played, his first thought, he said, was fear, which I remember disappointed me because I didn’t think it particularly scary. Was it so different, really, from architecture, seeing buildings in your mind, drawing them on flat pieces of paper before they were turned into something you could walk around and through? But things had happened in his life he could not easily explain, as luck (or fate) had had it. It was a simple thing to me, perhaps – a mystery to others – more magical than being able to play it, but creating this music out of nothing was, he found, something amazing. And yet it had been nothing, a little piece of drivel lacking form and substance, I’m embarrassed to admit. If I would succeed, he warned me, it took more than talent to make it happen, whatever 'it' was, but also a sense of will and strong determination on my part.

I did not like the sound of will and determination applied to something I had found such effortless fun, "studying diligently and with assiduity" (I remember Grandfather smiling at my confusion), but if it meant I could study regularly with Uncle William and eventually with Grandfather, I would do it. Grandfather told me, as I unwittingly found myself applying such diligent assiduousness, there was little more he could offer, that presently I would need to find a better teacher beyond Hillsborough. And with that came the suggestion of my going to Schweinwald, where his own teacher studied as a lad, an academy of high reputation for creating well-rounded students from across Europe. Mother, almost immediately, was duly concerned about it being so far away while Father duly wondered at the expense.

But surely, they both argued, wouldn't Belfast or Dublin be much closer or, at most, maybe Liverpool or even London? Certainly we could find a few good music schools closer than Bavaria? I was not, after all, some future Mozart – was I? – who needed such rarified training in such distant lands? In London, Father said, at least there were my mother’s cousins who lived in Hampstead I could stay with, though she quietly shook her head at this and patted his arm. He suggested we try one of their summer semesters, not a full academic year, enough to get me started and see if there’s enough talent to warrant a conservatory in London. Besides, Grandfather’d heard Brahms would be visiting there next summer which caused Mother to wrinkle her nose in distaste.

Father petitioned the Marquis of Down who fortunately considered himself an enthusiastic music lover, well acquainted with my grandfather’s playing, and eventually I went to the manor house and performed for him. By this time, I had considerably improved and he appeared genuinely impressed, though wondering if Germany was indeed necessary. But once Grandfather explained the details of the Schweinwald Academy to him, Sir Robert agreed to cover my expenses if, three months after returning, I presented a recital in the church.

After more diligent study and assiduous application, I filled out Schweinwald's forms, included a recommendation from the venerable Mr. Pook, took various tests about harmony and history and included a substantial portfolio with several piano pieces I had composed most recently for the occasion, plus numerous, very dry assignments in counterpoint. Within a space equivalent to numerous eternities, I received a tersely worded reply that – congratulations – I had been accepted and was expected to appear at Schweinwald on the 1st of July. And so it was, on that date – a dreary, rain-swept summer morning – when my carriage approached the legendary school I’d heard so much about from Grandfather and the agéd Mr. Pook, appearing through the shredded clouds and pine trees of the surrounding forest, a castle less grand than I imagined.

Uncomfortably dark and foreboding, befitting perhaps the serious nature of its purpose, Castle Schweinwald appeared older than it actuality was, jutting block-like from rocky out-croppings, tattered coloured banners flying from its towers, a medieval-looking fortress built two centuries since not nearly as ancient as that 10th Century monastery we'd passed earlier. Before it stretched a great stone-paved courtyard with a once grand fountain over which a large statue of Beethoven, looking infinitely sad and foreboding, certainly unwelcoming, loomed over the arriving students.

Mr. Pook was confident the school would not be very different now from the time he had attended it, though by now most of his teachers were either dead or retired. It was not difficult to imagine him as an expectant student walking this same path some fifty years since. The great Simon Sechter, then the headmaster, restructured the school’s summer program, to create an intensive course of immersion, students spending their days studying, practicing, rehearsing, composing, then studying some more.

It was grueling work and many disappeared before the end of term or chose not to return the following summer. Pook described it as a military camp, thumping his chest with pride. Undaunted, I breathed deeply, stepped down from my carriage, excited to begin: a career was mine, should I survive.

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It is now a fortnight since I arrived here that rainy day and the rain hasn't stopped this whole time, making me most glad my room is high in the East Tower where if nothing else I can be assured we will not drown should the stream below begin to flood. The weather is so chill and damp, some say the climate's changing in ways that exhibit no logical sense, that before long we shall all be buried under mountains of ice. My roommate, a fellow named Gottlieb Gutknaben, complains the students saying this purport to read the latest scientific writings but succeed only in frightening us all with their wild so-called theories. Of course, I mentioned nothing of this in my first letters home lest it cause my mother undo worry. A dutiful son, I have written several letters to assure my parents of my safe arrival, wishing them both well, and saying how much I miss them during these long, lonely hours. That may, in all honesty, be stretching it even just a bit, but every family likes to hear this. Finding time to write in this journal has proven the greater challenge as I have little time to myself. The excitement I feel is one thing; the hours requiring study, another.

Gutknaben, with whom I share these lodgings, may be younger than I but he studies at the advanced level, having been attending the Academy at Schweinwald during the regular academic year. He has only lately taken up composition aside from his piano lessons, the summer program likely to prove beneficial. It had long been considered a deficiency in his childhood, he insisted, to play from such an early age without, like most virtuosos of the day, composing anything on his own. Like everything else, my young friend fell into composition with considerable ease, he being already something of a prodigy, and accomplished in a very few months what had taken me years. He also spoke some English well enough, better than I spoke German, and this would prove a mutual benefit.

Our room was not large though far from Spartan, suiting our needs, with very little wasted space or undue embellishments. We had our beds and desks with commodious wardrobes for our clothes. The window, a slit in the wall, looked out upon the courtyard but failed to allow in much light. The hallway, befitting a tower, wound around, a long, dark descending spiral which must be constantly lit by candles. Made of great solid blocks of stone, any sound reverberated quite freely. At points, the hall would open into a warren of narrow staircases which seemed to lead in all directions making it very easy for anyone unfamiliar to find themselves irretrievably lost. It was rumoured, also, that the walls were riddled with secret passageways which I didn't doubt for an instant.

While the dormitories may have been built on a completely vertical axis, the classrooms and public areas were completely horizontal, from the library and various sitting rooms to the spacious Great Hall, on the west side, doubling as both dining room and concert space possessing a fine organ of numerous ranks. One could imagine the knights of some medieval version of Count Falkenstein, whose family built and owned the castle, feasting here upon roast venison and mead were it not so recent.

As we spent our first few days settling in and orienting ourselves, we soon discovered the logic of the layout: classrooms on the east side's main level; various offices, a floor above. The rooms set aside for our individual practice, small if private studios, burrowed deep into the ground beneath us. These various tours through the castle's expanse, meant to familiarize our situations, were conducted by a collection of docents who were faculty assistants and upper classmen continuing their studies on scholarships. Occasionally we would be met by and introduced to a member of the faculty or the Academy's administrative staff who would welcome us with flowery speeches and wish us the best. In all, it felt a friendlier place than it might physically appear, anticipation growing toward our first official convocation.

We learned – and were inevitably tested on – the history of the place along with its numerous landmarks and outstanding features, like the statue on the main landing of former headmaster Simon Sechter. Among the portraits of its famous alumni that lined the main hallways, I found no representation of Mr. Pook. There were also areas off-limits to students, specifically the upper West Side levels reserved for faculty and staff residences. And naturally they denied, with a smile, all knowledge of secret passageways.

On the second evening, following our dinner, the tables were moved away and we were treated to a concert, introduced by the current headmaster, Dudley Böhm, a venerable and stately gentleman. Warm and personable despite his advanced years, he introduced organist Reiner Knussbaum, a hoary mountain of an agéd man. He began by telling us how Professor Sechter prefaced each breakfast by improvising for the students a mighty fugue, then proceeded to play for us the last fugue Sechter ever wrote.

Following this he played a lengthy symphonic poem on the pipe organ in the modern manner of Franz Liszt which Professor Böhm composed entitled Die Schlacht which nearly shattered the rafters. Inspired by ancient events on this soil, it could easily be called The Battle of Light against the Darkness.

Dudley Böhm may have celebrated his 70th birthday a few weeks earlier, but some graciously declared he appeared hardly sixty, despite his silver-white hair and long beard if not his wrinkled brow. To us students, he was undoubtedly ancient, judging solely by his appearance but how ancient we could barely fathom. Unlike so many old people I'd met, Grandfather and Mr. Pook aside, Professor Böhm was thoroughly comfortable with students in a way possibly described as 'avuncular,' if one needed a word. Professor Knussbaum, who during the academic year was also the orchestra's conductor, we soon discovered more closely resembled us, already well advanced into his second childhood with a very fluid imagination. He had been a friend of Beethoven's when he was a lad, talking of him as a constant presence.

Other faculty members were less immediately engaging and, at times, absolutely intimidating, like the Dean of Students, Nikolai Kashcheyevich Bezsmyertnikov, a cold-blooded Russian with an icy stare also teaching seminars in criticism. Dauntingly granitic, he wore a sour expression during most of Böhm's tone-poem as if feasting upon a long-deceased rodent. Heinrich von Hammerschlag, justifiably dubbed "Der Pauker," was hardly any more encouraging as the theory teacher drumming into us the infrangible rules of harmony as if they were the Ten Commandments.

Of the female faculty members, Hammerschlag's wife Elisabeth was most thoroughly captivating, an ingratiating and quite possibly inspiring teacher who had been a once-famous concert pianist before marrying the indomitable Heinrich and, rumour had it, even a composer who had shown considerable promise before her husband required her to quit. Two nearly twin-like spinsters were the professors charged with teaching us solfège, Lotte Ramey whom nearly everyone called 'Doe,' and her younger cousin, Allegra Manon Troppo who habitually wore widow's weeds.

But news had swept throughout the room even before Professor Böhm's announcement that Johannes Brahms was soon to arrive and Franz Liszt, touring in the area, would offer us a recital! Such guests were not unusual at Schweinwald, despite its fairly isolated location, but were still regarded as momentous events.

Once the regular students returned and the summer session was fully engaged, our classes and private lessons began in earnest as the academy's beleaguered registrar, that same old fossil, Lotte 'Doe' Ramey, sorted us through a series of the latest, supposedly scientific placement tests into our various schedules and assigned professors. In my case, it seemed a balance of good news with bad, on the one hand composition with Böhm but getting Hammerschlag for theory (second level) and Professor Fabbro for counterpoint.

My first lesson with Professor Böhm was like sitting down to tea with the best friend of my grandfather despite their being unfamiliar with each other and lacking any possible connection. He asked me questions, heard my pieces, made a few apt suggestions and wanted to know what inspired me.

If Herr Böhm was interested in allowing my imagination considerable creative freedom, Emilio Fabbro's counterpoint class was its complete opposite, picking up as if in the midst of some highly didactic syllabus where we were to forget every fantasy regarding creative license and beauty to adhere to the strictest of applications.

We must hone our craft to the precision of a potter's wheel as we work with our raw materials so, underneath the surface patterns and glaze, every pot was technically identical.

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 to be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 16

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, D'Arcy and Kerr run into LauraLynn in the scene shop and make their escape from the IMPs, reaching a bank of elevators that will take them to the backstage of the opera house. (Meanwhile, elsewhere in Bavaria, an old man prepares for his evening, listening to the conclusion of Mozart's Don Giovanni.) Instead of the elevator doors opening, the walls disappear and Kerr, surrounded by blinding white light, hears the start of the first act finale of Rossini's Barber of Seville. That's when LauraLynn suggests they turn around.

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CHAPTER 16

Slowly we turned.

Considering the intensely bright lights, I could barely make out the backs of a line of soldiers and in front of them the back of Cora DiLetto as Rosina, standing dumbfounded next to the even more stunned figure of Dr. Bartolo, immobile, frozen, as unresponsive as a statue.

He’d demanded the militia arrest this soldier, barging drunkenly into his house, bearing official orders to be billeted there. But instead, they inexplicably salute the interloper and bafflingly freeze at attention.

Collapsing into a chair, poor old Bartolo, speechless as well as motionless, now becomes an object of light-hearted amusement for the disguised count (intent on wooing Rosina) and his accomplice, Figaro.

In all, an entrancingly delicate, magical moment, except it didn’t make sense why they’d have their backs to us.

Unofficially suspended in momentary disbelief was Almaviva, his curly fake mustache quivering as if ready to drop off his face, distracted by the unexpected appearance of three characters where they shouldn’t be. And as far as he could remember, characters who shouldn’t be, period.

I thought it best not to wave.

Figaro, wondering what caused the Count’s surprise, glanced over his shoulder just as I realized beyond them were visible the dimly lit faces of an audience, themselves frozen like open-mouthed statues.

Once the backdrop, a panel of doorways, had been completely whisked away, anyone onstage must appear to the audience like the silhouettes of cut-out dolls propped up before a blank wall. In the center, however, there stood three unstatue-like party crashers huddled together, unsuspectingly beamed in from some distant street. One man was wearing a rumpled tuxedo; the woman, thoroughly frazzled, a dove-gray over-the-shoulder sheath dress also considerably disheveled, and some old guy far too casual for such an elegant occasion.

Across the vast auditorium of the Festspielhaus, incredulous opera-goers picked up their lorgnettes or peered quizzically into their opera-glasses: time-travelers from another dimension, a different opera, an episode of Dr. Who? Perhaps, some decided, these were some of those nosy neighbors Figaro mentioned, alarmed about the noise from Bartolo’s house?

We had, apparently, made our unexpected entrance though a kind of “hell-trap” – an appropriate term, especially given our immediate circumstances – an elevator specially designed to deliver large set pieces directly on stage. Once the walls were in place, its ceiling slid away while the floor continued rising until it reached stage-level. Facilitating Don Giovanni’s ill-fated exit or making Mephistopheles’ bold entrance more symbolic, tonight the elevator served an unexpected purpose: placing three strangers behind the front lines of Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

It was impossible, given these blinding lights, to make out who that was I saw offstage to my right, an old man pulling at his hair in gestures of extreme consternation. It looked like the ancient servant Ambrogio was helping prepare a cart that appeared to be… full of pumpkins?

While dozens of techies gathered in the wings, their curiosity greatly aroused, three shadowy figures joined their ranks virtually unnoticed: well-armed, futuristically dressed in black, surreptitiously taking up positions behind the cart.

If we ran in the opposite direction, were more agents, the killer or just house security awaiting us there?

Clearly, our options, already severely limited, were becoming bleaker by the beat in this video game come to life.

Checking their gear, rifles ready, three agents prepared for their operatic debut.

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Fictitia should have figured a monster that size would have intense stamina, jogging through the woods at a steady pace. She only hoped she could keep up while maintaining a discreet distance. All she needed to do was find out where he was going, who he was, maybe snap another pic.

She heard the wolves howling in the distance while bats flitted overhead – as if things weren’t creepy enough, here. A city girl at heart, she rarely felt comfortable in the countryside.

“OMG, how cool is that? Freakin’ awesome,” she said, catching her breath, staring at the ruins looming before her: an authentic German castle back-lit by a full moon complete with bats.

Hearing a car driving up toward her, she hid herself behind a dense shrub planted near the front door.

Scarpia got out of his car, thinking everything appeared normal. A rendezvous? Then dialing Fictitia’s phone, he waited, hearing nothing.

The front door was unlatched.

“My dumpling – ready or not, here I…”

That’s when he was confronted by the photo she’d posted on Facebook which then knocked him to the floor.

The last thing Scarpia saw was a massive pair of hairy legs, one of them covered in diaphanous material.

He screamed just as everything went dark.

“Well, so much… for normal…”

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

Agent Gelida-Manina reported to Dispatcher Aida Lott, once they had arrived backstage and ascertained the location of their elusive prey, that there was now a third person with D’Arcy and the professor.

“Is this person the bomber?” she asked. She mentioned someone threw a canister, then yelled “fire in the hole.”

It had been enough of a distraction – not knowing if they had another bomb – and helped facilitate their escape. But they were now in their sites: “Piece o’ cake,” she concluded.

Agent Lott then made a call to the Festspielhaus’ Manager of Operations, requesting a secure room for an interrogation. The arrangements having been completed, she initiated her command center’s emergency move.

Leahy-Hu then escorted Cameron to this otherwise undisclosed location where she would await the inevitable capture of Dr. Kerr.

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

Like three bewildered deer caught in the headlights, D’Arcy, LauraLynn and I stood mesmerized in the middle of the stage, having unwittingly stolen the show with our wanton lack of costume compliance. If we could sneak across to the far side of the stage without somehow disrupting the performance even further...

It seemed unlikely the IMP agents would open fire on us onstage, right there in front of the audience, not to mention risking some pretty high-priced singers as unfortunate collateral damage.

Listening to the gentle, virtually a cappella ensemble coming to a close, I realized what we needed to do: once the rapid-fire conclusion erupted, we’ll make a dash for the wings.

Oh, snap!

Figaro’s gesture immediately brought Bartolo out of his hypnotic stupor and Rossini’s famously farcical stretto had begun.

Now I understood why they called this a stretto, Italian for “stress,” Ambrogio’s unwieldy farm wagon nearly overflowing with pumpkins, the singers dashing around the stage suddenly energized by their collective confusion, and adding to the stress, three agents, rifles poised across their chests, marching onstage and heading right toward us.

Eyes forward, we started crab-walking sideways, heel-toe/heel-toe, edging our way nervously closer to the opposite side of the stage. Unfortunately, two lines of soldiers, stiff as tin, stood in our way.

Maestro Maéstro started waving frantically, the cue for all the soloists to rush from the front of the stage to fan out along the walkway circling the front of the pit. As the wagon lumbered onstage, the old man almost dropped his baton, gripping his chest with his left hand.

Wondering why the tempo suddenly picked up even more speed, Almaviva looked back as Ambrogio fixed the wagon’s location accompanied by three futuristically costumed warriors menacingly clad head-to-toe in Death-Star Black.

Had this been Stage Manager Gottlieb’s idea to liven up the production they had borrowed from the Metropolitan Opera, creating some Eurotrash mash-up with the Three Ladies from Mozart’s Magic Flute?

But there, pacing in the wings, was the equally beleaguered Herr Gottlieb, pulling out what little hair was left.

“My head’s in a furnace,” they sang, “clanking on a huge anvil!”

The finale’s furious clanging reduced them to madness, everything sung to tongue-tying, machine-gun-like patter racing up and down the scales. Ambrogio, ignoring the three IMP agents, started running around in ever-widening circles to alert everyone to some imminent disaster. Not sure he was referring to one the director had in mind or one that was already quickly unfolding, I looked up to see cables cautiously lowering a freaking huge anvil.

When Bertha the maid, near panic, climbed to her shattering high C and he sensed something swinging above them, Agent Leise saw an immense black object, assumed the worst and panicked. Shouting warnings to his comrades, he raised his rifle and leaped back, disabling their attacker with a well-placed bullet.

The anvil tore loose, swaying dangerously overhead like some vast wounded animal. After more shots all perfectly timed to the music, the anvil crashed, shattering the wagon and squashing all its pumpkins.

In the madcap rush at the end, LauraLynn, D’Arcy and I were swept off stage by the fleeing soldiers.

The three IMP agents slipped and fell in what would no doubt have made the world’s largest pumpkin pie.

The curtain descended; the audience, rising to its feet, cheered as one.

* * ** *** ***** END OF ACT ONE ***** *** ** * *

to be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 15

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, a strange creature emerges from a crack in the Festspielhaus wall following the explosion and runs across the back parking lot as Fictitia takes a quick photo and posts it on-line before deciding to follow after it. In the opera house, cast, audience and members of the Festival's security team react to the explosion and Scarpia notices Fictitia is on the move. Who caused this explosion? A terrorist, no doubt, and Leahy-Hu knows just who the terrorist is...

= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 15

Once the noise with its incessant echoes subsided and we found we were not in fact standing among smoldering ruins, whatever that had been and whatever damage it may have done somewhere, V.C. D’Arcy and I distinctly heard the not well concealed conversation coming from the back of the scene shop. It was then we decided, whatever had happened in front of us, it was our only hope to escape, eventually finding the freight elevators that would take us to safety backstage.

That shadow against the wall, barely visible to our left, hadn’t moved, probably some set piece or misplaced prop, arms stretched and fingers splayed like someone trying to sneak past unseen. Then I noticed one of the arms began to slide slowly downward, in toward the body: a living person!

D’Arcy saw it, too, and pointed, stopping only momentarily as we crept slowly toward the front end of the shop. He knew LauraLynn but perhaps he too wasn’t sure this was her. Shrugging my shoulders, feeling a bit uncertain, I wondered if it was somebody we didn’t want to run into.

“Hello?” I whispered cautiously through cupped hands though it sounded like I’d shouted at the top of my lungs. It must be deafening in here when all this machinery was operating.

“Terry?” LauraLynn’s voice was practically a squeal of relief, despite being whispered, and D’Arcy was quick to shush her, mindful of our visitors hopefully still at the back of the shop.

“There’s no time, we have to get out of here,” D’Arcy whispered back to her as she hurried over.

From the various scenery and costume shops, everything funneled into this hallway leading directly to that bank of elevators, D’Arcy’s urgent instructions resonating in the eerie emptiness of this cathedral-like space.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see how clutter against the walls could afford us safety. But we all knew hiding was not as good an idea as simply getting the hell out of there, making a rapid dash while hoping the elevators were still operating after-hours.

A faint light glowed at the far end where D’Arcy was pointing, a distance that seemed like a mile away. We were going to run down this long, wide-open cattle-chute, completely exposed? One could only hope the agents chasing us were lousy shots like most bad guys were in the movies.

“But what if he’s waiting for me?” LauraLynn had reason not to escape, not wanting to confront her attacker.

“Unfortunately,” D’Arcy replied, “there are several well-armed agents back there. Your call.”

He explained about the sound-proof wall that hadn’t been completely closed, intended to seal the shop from the elevators, all state-of-the-art technology to control the noise level during rehearsals and performances.

“I should be able to close it before they can reach us. It moves almost completely silently. Here goes!”

I saw him swipe his ID-badge through some box in the shadows then realized how this immense wall halfway between us and the elevators had started to glide shut effortlessly and noiselessly, two panels made of thick plates of steel headed toward each other: miss this and we’re trapped – or crushed.

The space we were aiming for was getting narrower by the second.

D’Arcy pushed us out ahead of him.

“Hurry, we’ve only got a few seconds!”

So, off we ran.

“Great…”

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

State-of-the-art night-vision goggles, of course, would have made tracking down their prey that much easier for the three IMP agents charged with capturing Acting Director D’Arcy and his friend, Leahy-Hu’s “dratted professor.” Whatever it was he stole, they agreed it must be very important: she’d been adamant about wanting him alive.

Unfortunately, the goggles the agents had been issued were not technically “state-of-the-art,” like most things dealt to the arts, old issue hand-me-downs culled from various world-wide security agencies’ technology clearing houses.

For Special Agents Kaye Gelida-Manina and Wanda Menveaux, both ten year veterans of the agency, this was status quo but Milton Leise, who’d only recently transferred in from Germany’s elite Bundesmusikalischeabwehrdienst, was always complaining about their outdated equipment and consequently always got stuck with the oldest stuff. “Seniority,” they said.

After that cell-phone rang and the bomb went off, they heard their dispatcher’s voice in their headsets. “You guys okay?”

“Yeah,” Gelida-Manina responded, “but you said they weren’t armed? What the hell…?”

“We’re checking on that. Apparently some device went off in the ductwork outside your area. Proceed with your mission.”

Agent Aida Lott had once been a member of their elite team, transferred after she could no longer fit into the tight black uniforms making them look like space-age storm troopers.

“Shit,” Agent Leise mumbled under his breath.

“Great, here we go again.” Agent Gelida-Manina cursed the day she got stuck with this new guy on her team. “Now what’s the problem?”

“I think I stepped in some shit. The batteries in these goggles are about shot. Can’t see a thing.”

Whatever it was, it was still tacky.

“Well, it’s not blood,” Agent Menveaux said, checking it with ultraviolet light.

“I didn’t say it was: I thought it was shit,” Leise retorted.

Gelida-Manina, pointing to a paint can knocked off a workbench during the explosion, suddenly heard voices in the distance.

“Shit…”

“Not again, Leise.”

“No, look. Straight ahead – there!”

“Three of them?”

Indeed, three shadows dashed toward a wall that was rapidly closing shut.

“Stop! IMP!”

Like that ever worked before…

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

I’d heard the expression “mad dash” before, but this was freaking insane, already winded and, typically, bringing up the rear. As the wall closed in on me, it nearly caught my arm. Fortunately, I was able to get both arm and tote-bag completely through before I heard any nasty crunching sounds. I heard shots being fired, ricocheting off the outside of the wall, meaning our pursuers were getting more desperate. What were the chances this wall would be impervious to their advance?

My knees still quivered from the frightening realization, not only might I have left the artifact behind for them, I might also have lost an arm in the process as well. But there was no time to contemplate the adjustments life would’ve required: we still had to reach the elevators.

A small utility light cast a weak glow from over the elevators, comparably bright enough like being awash in moonlight. D’Arcy reached the elevator first and punched each “up” button in turn.

Pulling the statue out of the tote-bag, I quickly checked the artifact and saw it managed to survive intact.

“Aww, Terry, you broke the head off!” LauraLynn looked over my shoulder. “Maybe there’s some glue in my purse.”

“No, it was already missing it before. Do you recognize this thing?”

After taking a quick glance, LauraLynn had no idea what it was or why anyone found it so important. The evening was full of such confusion, she mentioned with a sigh. There was no logical explanation about Dr. Girdlestone and the journal, either, but yet it must have some significance.

“Whatever,” she said, “he must’ve killed Rob and Aunt Katie trying to get it, and he almost killed me. Plus I have no idea what might have happened to Heidi, either.”

Hearing shots meant “sound-proof” wasn't everything it was cracked up to be. The elevators clanked slowly back to life.

“Where’s this journal,” I asked her. “Do you have it with you?”

She was afraid of losing her purse, so I suggested putting the journal in my tote-bag with the statue.

“I was only going to give him a few pages I’d photocopied, hoping that was enough to keep him happy. Rob had promised to give it to him before… before he died.” She stopped a moment before adding, “at least, that’s what Girdlestone said. Who knows what Rob knew about it.”

I was going to tell her about the text messages I’d been getting from Rob’s cell-phone since I arrived, when there was a great crunch coming from the wall behind us.

Three black-clad agents burst through a crack, firing shots above our heads, hitting the only light we had left. One more time thrown into total darkness, I felt them getting closer.

D’Arcy pushed us toward the elevator that opened, threw something and yelled, “Fire in the hole!”

The agents scrambled.

Of the three elevator doors, D’Arcy wasn’t sure which specifically went where, but since they all went backstage, it didn’t matter which one we’d tumbled into, the door crawling to a close.

“From here,” D’Arcy explained, “then we’ll head out to the back parking lot and get my car.”

“What’s next?”

“Remember that composer I thought maybe Rob could have given that head?”

“Excuse me, what...? Oh, right, Mozart's head...”

“Well,” D'Arcy continued, “it's important we reach him as soon as possible.”

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

It was already well into the evening when the old man decided he should soon be getting ready for bed, sitting back to unwind for a while and take stock of things, a long day under his belt with a lot to show for the hard work he’d put into it. He felt it put him in a good place for tomorrow morning, picking up right where he’d left off rather than spending so much valuable time figuring out where he’d been. When he was younger, he called it “slaving over a hot piano,” though he composed less at the keyboard since he’d “gotten the hang of it,” joking with all those interviewers. Still, he had to keep himself focused or he’d never get this new composition done by the September deadline.

He tried not to think about feeling exhausted at the day’s end, worn down more by physical fatigue than mental, dwelling on aching joints or how his bladder was fit to burst. Careful with taking enough breaks, he discovered his joints bothered him less and the composing kept his mind sharp. Everybody seemed surprised he was still alive – none more than he himself – much less busily turning out new works, coming up on his 99th birthday in January and still going strong.

That’s when he started thinking about his friend, Robertson Sullivan, still dealing with the news of his recent murder. By most standards, Rob, barely in his 60s, was close to retirement. But had he died at that age, much the old man was famous for would never have been written. The arguments were old and tired – older and more tired than he was – about full lives and productive careers. Couldn’t Rob have been granted a few extra years like he’d been?

It was easy to feel a bit smug, realizing you were still “at it” when younger men were gone, not sure it was really with a sense of relief or not, but with so many friends’ recent deaths, especially those still bountifully creative, Rob’s death had affected him more deeply.

“What did you want to listen to tonight,” his nephew asked him, getting some more CDs down off the shelf.

“Oh, well – Mozart, I guess – always Mozart, if I can help it.” He felt the “divine clarity” was something always good for his soul and kept the technical demons at bay.

They decided on Don Giovanni considering it had been a few weeks since the last time he’d heard it.

“Just the last disc, please – pick it up before the Commendatore’s entrance?”

Once the old man started sipping cautiously at his Scotch, his nephew, after checking to make sure the volume was okay, announced he was planning on going out with some friends.

“So late? Almost 9:30.” What was late to an old man wasn't necessarily so late to a younger one.

This was an old joke between them, even if a bit stale, since the nephew was technically a younger man if not exactly a young one himself, already well into his mid-60s.

Suddenly, the nephew noticed a fleeting expression on the older man's face. "Are you okay? Should I stay home?"

"No, no, I'm fine – you go ahead," he said, "really, it's nothing," settling more comfortably into his favorite chair.

"Maybe there's a disturbance in The Force. Not expecting visitors, are you?"

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

Not only did I think the door would never close in time, but since the elevator was so brightly lit, we’re like sitting ducks for agents even without night-goggles or heat-seeking weapons. We’d only budged off the ground when I realized that spray of bullets we’d heard would never hit us. D’Arcy’s bomb fake-out with a handy can of spray paint had bought us a few seconds of valuable time, yet it was too early for us to start celebrating our escape.

D'Arcy quickly scribbled something down on a scrap of paper, folding it. "Don't read this unless we get separated. I'm sorry I don't have his number."

"But how are we to...?"

“Well, he lives in a chalet outside Garmisch-Partenkirchen, up in the Alps. If something happens, call Drummoyne, he'd know.”

The elevator was extremely quiet but also unbelievably slow, increasing our anxiety. Taking the stairs would’ve been healthier and faster.

There were so many places I would rather have been, right now.

Rossini’s Barber an old favorite, LauraLynn wondered how the opera was going, where the performance might be, now. “Intermission?”

D’Arcy told her she’d be able to watch it on DVD tomorrow, since it was a live TV broadcast, unless of course security had evacuated the Festspielhaus after the bomb exploded.

It dawned on me what we’d just survived was the first installment of what could well be an on-going series, if Dhabbodhú was after the artifact and Girdlestone was after the journal. Having succeeded in escaping Leahy-Hu’s agents once, what else would we have to go through to catch Rob’s killer?

Besides, what happens if those three agents did take the stairs and would meet us when our elevator opened?

I heard the music, now: the first act finale was just beginning!

But rather than the door opening, the walls around us gradually disappeared, the music not only louder, but closer.

“Where are we?” After the darkness in the shop, this was blinding.

I could barely see, like staring into a wall of brilliant sunlight.

“Uhm, guys…?” LauraLynn sounded hesitant. “Turn around?”

= = = = = = =
to be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 14

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 explosion unlocked distant memories in Garth Widor's brain and triggered a possible realization in LauraLynn's. Fictitia, standing on the edge of the back parking lot is reminded of another explosion, years ago. D'Arcy and Kerr realize they are not alone...

= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 14

“No time,” he growled at her, “No time – there is no time,” which he kept chanting in between his breaths as he ran past the figure of the girl dressed in black. Annoying, what she had done, rudely taking his picture with her phone, taking it without even asking his permission. He had no time, he kept stressing, to take care of things, to teach her the lesson of rudeness, to seize her phone, her camera, no time to destroy her proof.

He ran down the sidewalk effortlessly, past the girl who’d stepped back as he ran beyond her, witheringly disdainful, bounding with great strides, arms paddling at his sides as if swimming. He took off across the parking lot, headed for the dark woods – no time until he found his safety.

Chasing the woman in the dove-gray dress through the maze of darkness, he’d lunged for her, grabbed her too late as she slipped through a slender crack in the wall and disappeared. Some thoughtless Niebelheimer left a shop door open wide enough for her, too narrow for his own magnificent form.

The door started gliding shut as he reached through to grab her – he barely extricated his arm before amputation. He screamed, egregious and enraged: the wall rudely swallowed his left pants-leg.

He yanked desperately and tore himself away, diaphanous fabric wafting from the invisible rift that nearly devoured his leg when equally unexpectedly there was a reverberant blast that hurled him floorward, as if all the forces of evil pushing themselves against the Gates of Hell broke loose upon the earth.

“Holy Hell,” he screamed, “no time, no time,” as he scabbered against the floor through dust and settling debris, oblivious to the cause but conscious he would without question be blamed.

His beautiful composition, his “Symphony for One Whose Time Has Come,” was not going according to his original plan, that someone – some inconsiderate terrorist – had ruined its performance, inconceivably out-Stockhausened him. This required a pure improvisatory response, inspirational, immensity meeting gesture for gesture, an escalation in the warp of time.

But not now: there was no more time, his mind thought, reeling from the pain, eyes blinded by the dust, his hand smarting in imagined agony from its near-brush with extreme separation. Despite his inordinate strength and impeccable physique, a slender woman nearly destroyed him with a bit of ancient technology. He had been on the wrong side: she had the air-lock with the door’s crushing weight in her favor. One small miscalculation became an oblique resolution, a deceptive cadence – “not tonight!”

Again, he brought himself close to failure, to the very brink of success with all its acclaims and approbation, only to have it snatched by some unanticipated turn of unforeseeable events. Fate, forever rudely knocking at the door—flirtatious and fickle – managed once again to give him the metaphorical finger.

It will be difficult now to retrieve the notebook willingly from the hand of the Interloper’s cousin after her ordeal, too frightened by far to agree willingly to meet with him again. His challenge somehow will be to make her bring them to him, the notebook and the gizmo, both together.

He must find the fountain but it is getting late, too late, with each setback however slight, however discouraging. And so he, Tr’iTone, must fall back, regroup, not defeated – never defeated!

He knew he could no longer wait around until she’d think it safe enough to emerge from her hiding place, in one grand act of surprise seizing the manuscript from her hand. Security, once upon the scene, would automatically blame him for the explosion, the Style Police and their aesthetic profiling. He could not risk getting himself captured even if he could escape – the delay unwise and the outcome, dubious. There must be another way, plus he had to get the gizmo.

He’d hoped to get them peacefully from the Interloper with mere threats, handing them over simply out of fear, until he had found him already dead, killed by someone else's hand. But speaking of performance art, it had turned out so incredibly magnificent, the memory still could make him smile.

Every set-back, technical or emotional, required an immediate and inspired creative response, consciously or subconsciously working out the various details until, as if by magic, everything fell into place, the solution obvious. He must clear his mind, carefully preparing himself both mentally and physically, turning himself into a conduit for creativity.

Like any composer running up against a problem, he realized it was time to return to the drawing board, work out the problems, discover his options, trust everything to his inspiration.

The Interloper had been destroyed too soon by some rude avenging angel, dead when he’d arrived to demand, again only through the use of fear, the notebook and the all-important gizmo. If not there, where could they be, where had they been hidden? No time, alas, to challenge him again.

Hearing no evil, he will enjoy the blessings of inspiration no more; seeing no evil, composing it no more. Speaking no evil, he will no longer delude those who follow him.

Tr’iTone left the Festspielhaus far behind him, turning down the narrow path leading away from the old Falkenstein Farm. The woods grew denser, darker, as he dashed along the Fricken Road.

Soon, he’d arrive at the castle ruins on the Dark Side of the Schweinwald. Who would dare follow him?

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

“No time? What the hell did he mean by that?” she wondered, desperately trying to keep from losing her balance: if she hits her head, they’ll just say, “well, that explains it!” But wait a minute, her phone – she’d taken a picture of him – it – whatever it was – with her phone.

“No time, indeed,” she said, “I have got to tweet this ASAP!” fumbling with her fingers in the darkness. “Please, please, please don’t let me delete this by accident, not now!”

She didn’t try to come up with an explanation for the blast much less for what she thought she saw emerging from the hole in the wall shortly after the blast. If she dwelt on explanations, she might lose valuable time and her nerves were still shot from that explosion.

“Yes!” She pumped her fist in success once she saw her photo of the thing appear on her Flikr account, as clear as if he’d sat for his portrait in a studio. Or at least in one of those carnival photo booths – smile! click! “Yeah, he does look kind of surprised.”

She tapped in a caption – “WTF! Is this dude in the opera?” – then hit ‘post’ to Twitter and Facebook. It was so cool, she considered using it for her profile pic.

She tried getting another photo of him but it was too dark, some blur in the distance barely visible. (What did they call that thing – Sasquatch? Were there Yetis in Germany?) Besides, anybody who would see this one would claim it was photo-shopped, even that clear portrait shot she’d taken.

Then she turned back to the building to check out the wall, more dust settling than smoke and flames, and decided to take some pictures of the hole from different angles.

Maybe the explosion didn’t make the hole and this thing came crashing through the wall, escaping from the blast? She’d been standing with her back to the building when it happened. It wasn’t really a “hole,” she thought, more a kind of fissure, a tear in the brick and stonework.

Then she remembered flicking her cigarette butt away, wondering what to do next, how it must've rolled down this drain. The explosion couldn't have been a minute later, as she walked away. Did she cause the blast, igniting gas backed up in the drain? What gas did sewers produce, anyway – methane?

That’s when she noticed the ubiquitous “No Smoking” sign near the drain, but then they were everywhere, weren’t they? She, like most smokers, routinely ignored them, infringing her right to smoke.

Filthy habit aside, as her old Gran never failed to remind her, she tried to be more conscious ecologically, always a rough balance between colliding worlds, her pleasure and her responsibility. But seriously – “I mean, srsly!” – if you’d risk blowing the place up, they should be a bit more emphatic.

Well, whatever happened, she didn’t want to hang around till security arrived, knowing how they’d only blame her for it. There were already two officers running over from the trailer now, anyway.

“Damn,” she cursed under her breath, pocketing her phone, “time to roll,” no time to think of a plan.

So Fictitia took off after this creature, since she couldn’t very well run back into the building, could she? She understood the need to follow him – but at a discreet distance…

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

There was a genuine sigh of collective relief once the singers on stage had gotten through this very tricky scene where Old Dr. Bartolo confronted his nemesis disguised as a drunken soldier, which included slicing down a potted orange tree during some animated swordplay, the actor playing Ambrogio barely escaping injury. It was bad enough Septimus Huffington, the young singer making his European debut as Bartolo, was suffering from allergies, barely able to catch his breath during his big aria’s rapid-fire patter.

The audience reaction, till then, had been pure delight, especially for Cora DiLetto’s performance of “Una voce poco fa,” most of which she sang while sprawled precariously across a low-slung divan. Unfortunately, the response to Huffington’s “Un dottore della mia sorte” cooled considerably: perhaps he needed to lose some weight.

Ms. DiLetto was relieved to get through some hectic antics where she nearly got knocked over at the dress rehearsal, but then she felt this unexpected blast, like some deep, distant excavation. There’s a small explosion later, Figaro’s diversion during the up-coming music lesson, but what the hell was this one?

The singers looked uncertainly at each other, catching sight of the alarm on Figaro’s face when he rushed on-stage to warn them all this noise was attracting their curious neighbors’ attention.

Backstage, a look of anxiety passed quickly from one technician to another as they felt this ominous underground rumble which was much bigger than the sound effect for the next act. In the pit, the floor buckled and shook as the conductor took an unexpected pause after Figaro’s climactic “Olá!”

The musicians, seeing Maestro Maéstro’s eyes bugging out, realized this was probably not some last-minute change in the production. The conductor, after a deep breath, continued: the show must go on!

“Save it for intermission, there’s no time to worry about it, now,” Stage Manager Gottlieb prompted everyone on headset. “We’ve got a complex maneuver minutes away. Are the lights still working?”

Like his colleagues, his thoughts were running in all directions at once: perhaps Rita Pagliaccio was up to something?

In the nearly sold-out auditorium, the excitement was running high for Bartlet Sher’s innovative and, so far, well-received production, though there were some old-timers who scowled at what they probably considered typical Eurotrash mayhem perpetrated upon their beloved classics while younger ones sat back bored because it wasn’t going far enough.

Some noted how carefully that off-stage explosion was timed with the music, no doubt the benefit of computerized technology.

“Why,” the mayor said, “I even felt it under my seat! Marvelous!”

Ignoring their concerns, the crew silently rolled the large panel of doors across the back out of the way and a wagon full of pumpkins was ready to move on stage.

“Anvil in place?” Gottlieb, unnerved by the unexplained interruption, tried his best to remain calm. “Okay, everybody – it’s showtime!”

Scarpia, sitting alone in his box watching the stage, wondered what that earth-rattling noise had been – an earthquake? in Bavaria? – then wondered what was taking Fictitia so long in the ladies’ room.

His phone vibrated gently in his pocket – he was sure it was his phone – meaning Fictitia must’ve posted something.

“What the hell,” he wondered, “is this her idea of a joke?” The tracker indicated she’s on the move.

Annoyed, he decided he’d better follow her – but at a discreet distance.

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

Officer Mobilé arrived at that storage room where this character wearing a towering wig and harem pants was seen leaving, the room outside Niebelheim – which they noticed Heidi Gedankgesang never emerged from. It was unlikely the perp would still be anywhere in the vicinity but she needed to rescue Ms. Gedankgesang. Her gun drawn, she cautiously swiped her ID-badge through the computerized lock, the door drifting open leaving out a soft creaking noise, a strong whiff of mothballs and something unsettlingly familiar.

But before she could enter the room and turn on the light, wondering what it was she might find, there was a sudden explosion that sent her sprawling across the hallway. The floor seemed to buckle and the walls swayed back and forth as she dashed for the nearest exit.

Captain Schäufel was leading his officers through the underground maze of hallways, making only two wrong turns before reaching Niebelheim. At the entrance, Schäufel gave orders, sliding his ID-badge through the lock.

Suddenly, they found themselves flattened against the floor by a tremendous blast, an over-powering shower of dust and debris.

Gradually staggering to his feet, Officer Sordino couldn’t believe what he saw: the heavy security door ripped wide open.

A strange shadow ran toward a considerable crack in the outside wall.

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

The trailer rocked sideways as Cameron went to flush the toilet. “Holy crap!” he shouted, glad he’d just stood up. “What the hell was that,” he wondered, trying to keep his footing. The water in the bowl sloshed back and forth, reminding him of news footage he’d seen of California earthquakes.

Convinced this was Cameron’s attempt to escape, Leahy-Hu rushed into the restroom. “And what exactly, Mr. Pierce, was that?”

“Holy crap,” Officer Martineau shrieked, checking the security cams, “getta loada this?”

Officer Sordino radioed to the security trailer. “You'd better send back-up. There was a bomb. Now there's a hole. And... and… Well,” he hesitated before adding, “you'd better send back-up – fast!”

As they charged out the door, positive it was some terrorist attack, Leahy-Hu knew just who the terrorist was.

= = = = = = =
to be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

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

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 13

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, one of the Schweinwald Security agents discovers the presence of an oddly-dressed figure in the Festspielhaus basement as Fictitia, bored with the opera, decides to slip out for a cigarette break. Garth Widor, busily setting up the first of a series of bombs for an attack on the Festspielhaus, makes a mistake and LauraLynn, feeling the explosion, has a shocking epiphany.

= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 13

He remembered the explosion after the gunfire as people ran around screaming, how he came to in a hospital bed, covered in layers of bandages, surprised that he’d somehow managed to survive. He had lost large quantities of blood, the doctor calmly told him, and there was something about a concussion. How many times had he tried to remember his world before that explosion, the gunfire and all the screaming, anything before all the pain and the long convalescence in the hospital? He always viewed that explosion, whatever it was, bringing down the curtain on the first act of his life and how it seemed like he’d just walked in late after intermission. He had no ID on him, no one knew who he was and he couldn’t even remember his name.

Had his brain been wiped clean in some scientific experiment gone wrong, every cell containing any trace of the past drained from his body along with all the blood that he’d lost? One thing he did remember was waking up from a deep sleep mumbling, they told him, the word “Heiniken.” They asked him if he was thirsty, did he want some beer, was it his favorite brand of beer? But he had no idea what it meant, what significance it had.

They were calling him a hero, having saved several lives including the wife and child of a wealthy businessman who, out of gratitude, was taking care of his considerable medical expenses. The man had visited him several times while he was still unconscious and spoke highly of his apparent valor. A bomb had gone off nearby as they walked in the park, killing several men dressed suspiciously in black. He’d knocked down the wife and son, shielding them with his body.

The nurses told him luckily his grateful benefactor happened to be one of the wealthiest men in New York, a prominent Wall Street banking firm’s CEO named Bernie “the Cooker” Steele, which made him wonder what he was doing in New York City? He spoke with a heavy German accent.

As the long process of recuperation continued, Steele came by to talk, telling him how he’d never have to worry, that once he was ready for it, a job would be waiting. The important thing was that he get better, get back his strength, leave the nightmares – (what nightmares?) – behind him. It was unimportant who he’d been, if he couldn’t remember his past, what he’d done, where he’d come from. Not everybody was given a clean slate, starting over completely from scratch.

Occasionally Steele’s wife, Vanna Mae, came by to see how he was, bringing her son Ronnie who was 10, an arrogant bastard who felt naturally you’d risk your life for his. The wife was a hot blonde with long legs and large breasts. The kid, a spoiled brat, was dangerous.

How would he go about creating a whole new identity for himself? He would need a name, first of all. Not knowing who he had been before, who’d he want to become?

The nurse switched the radio from the country station to the classical, neither of which he found particularly enjoyable.

His room careened from Garth Brooks to the Toccata by Charles-Marie Widor. That was it: he’d become Charles Brooks.

Later, he decided switching the names around sounded more exotic: Garth Widor.

If memories were like snapshots in time, he knew basically he must have a whole album full of them, somewhere. Hidden in a special place he’d forgotten, that ‘somewhere’ was the issue. He kept hoping he could find that room, its door slightly ajar, or be able to pick the lock. Maybe, doctors suggested, if he started imagining some scenes from his past, it would trigger some sense of recognition that would help him unlock everything else, unleashing a flood of memories.

But every locked door, every strongbox he discovered in these imaginary memories, he thought “I could pick this lock” until he wondered maybe he was… well, a handyman, good with tools. It was also curious that while he spoke English with an accent, he didn’t understand a word of German.

For the next thirty years, he worked as a handyman and bodyguard before discovering (or rather, uncovering) some hidden talents, later on becoming the Chief of Security Operations for the Steele Family until the senior Steele retired to his villa in Provence with his Swiss bank accounts and numerous off-shore holdings.

Widor had stayed loyally by the junior Steele’s side and been rewarded with increased responsibilities and increasingly familiar tasks which felt almost like some kind of home-coming, back on old turf.

But now, a curtain parting for the first time in thirty years, he saw the face of a woman, a woman who looked at him with expressions of love and tenderness. It wasn’t an attractive face, as faces went, but there was more to this face than just physical attraction.

Was this the long-forgotten face of his mother he was finally looking into after all these years? Perhaps not. There was too much class for someone who might be his mother.

Her hair was long and lustrously blonde, pulled back across the front before spilling in cascades down her back. Rapunzel, he had called her once, as she sat at her window.

Something must have happened – no, something had been discovered (or probably both) – and he was forced to leave her.

Who was she, this Rapunzel whom he found gazing into his face, a look of deep concern in her eyes? Was that a word of hope on her lips or of caution? Her face came gradually into focus, hovering there above him, the soft touch of a hand on his cheek.

“Lisl,” he tried to call out but couldn’t, feeling weak and broken, the taste of blood in his mouth. His legs hurt to move and his head ached, racked with pain.

Once again, he could taste blood in his mouth, his legs still hurt and his head continued to ache. But he remembered he called her Lisl and felt her loving touch. She said something to him like “forget me” and “it cannot work.” Apparently, she was right – he’d forgotten her.

In the darkness as the dust continued settling around him, he scrunched his brows together trying to force his memory.

“So close,” he said over and over, “so close. Come back, Lisl…”

He had no idea where he was, what had happened to him. Was he in the garden, hurt again?

His eyes were uncooperative, refusing to adjust, though it seemed so familiar, lying there on his back, looking up. He’d been discovered, lying underneath a balcony, beside a broken rose trellis.

No, not this time, he realized, sensing it in his aching bones: this is different; that, somehow, was then. There was no face, no loving touch, it was all a memory. This, he remembered, was supposed to be his last job for SHMRG – “too old” – how he’d hoped to retire.

What was that all about, he wondered, sinking back, exhausted and confused. “Stay alert,” he told himself, “hang on.” He wondered who Lisl was, where the garden was, why he’d fallen.

He heard the taunting voices of children calling him “eine kleine Heineken” – was he fond of beer, even then? – chasing him across the school playground and down the alleys toward home.

No, because that was his name: not the beer but like some obscure Baroque composer – who…? Johann David Heinichen?

He knew if he could just name it, he would own it, part of the process toward reclaiming his past. He needed names and now he knew his name and her name. He could hardly imagine who he’d been, those years before the explosion in the park, but who was she? She was older by perhaps a decade, she was lonely and attractive and – oh yes, she was terribly rich. He remembered vaguely that he was working for her brother, wasn’t he?

Lisl had been the younger sister of the old man who ran a music festival at that ruined castle – what was the old man’s name, Frankenstein or something; no, more Falkenstein...? What was her name, he kept trying to remember, thinking of champagne: not Falkenstein – she had been a widow.

That’s right, her married name had been Riesling, just like the fine sparkling wine that suited her personality so well. But his name was Heinichen: everyone knew beer and wine didn’t mix. It had been a running joke in those sweet hours after love-making, what name they would give their baby.

He remembered giving her something, some memento before he was forced to leave her, something to give the baby.

“Wait a minute,” he thought, “there was going to be a baby?”

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

It amused her as they worked their way through the soup course – too salty, he winced; too bland, she muttered – how they’d become comfortable with each other like an old married couple, despite the miles between them and the few times they had to spend together, chatting over a pleasant dinner. LauraLynn wondered if they might not be seeing more of each other now that he’d be living outside Munich and she was shedding more of her foundation’s day-to-day work in London. An only child who never married, she assumed Rob had never remarried because those years with Beatrice may well have been enough to put any man off the idea of marriage. She was never quite sure what her own excuse would have been, if he were thinking the same thing.

When Rob called and said he was flying back to the States after having attended the funeral for Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist, hoping to put the finishing touches on his opera before rehearsals began, she knew he would want to have dinner with her that night without even mentioning their favorite restaurant’s name. It was just one of the many things left unspoken between them: dinner in London meant Piccoloni’s at seven, a little earlier if there was a concert they’d be going to.

After the entrée – he’d gotten his usual salmon; she, the apricot chicken – Rob started talking about the opera’s plot, something he hadn’t even confided to the Festival board aside from Zeitgeist. Whatever reason he’d kept it to himself, if he’s this close to finishing it, he could break his secrecy. Calling it Faustus, Inc., he knew the basic plot was fairly obvious, joking “the details were in the devil,” an up-dated version of the classic legend set in the corporate world.

Writing his own libretto, based on his own adaptation of Goethe’s setting, Rob apologized he was like many writers uncomfortable with giving away too many details of their new novel’s plot for fear of losing that delicate thread, waking up some foggy morning with no idea where it was going.

All she knew was he’d long been dissatisfied with the original ending and that Zeitgeist had thought much the same, even though most of this second, final act had already been finished. Rob figured he would have to start over again, rewriting all of the text, probably most of the music. The second act was now too long but if he broke it into two separate parts, finding a balance, this new third act was relentless in its drive to the conclusion.

Rob had become more animated as he recalled his old Harvard adviser who'd suggested he look for ways to combine his economic and financial background with his love of music which for years he thought meant creating a corporation antithetical to SHMRG or working philanthropically as LauraLynn had done.

“After those years I’d spent in training, learning my father’s corporate mentality, all those years of working with his company – no wonder he never understood why I wanted to be an artist – not to mention having been married to that avaricious little bitch, Beatrice – I’m combining what I love… and hate.”

Rob laughed, hastily waving away invisible concerns. “I’m sure Dad would disown me completely if he were still alive. So let’s just say it’s ‘very controversial,’ and leave it at that.”

Later, she recalled how surprised she had been at Rob’s sudden outburst which seemed to well up out of nowhere, a man who was usually placid even in the most challenging situations. Very little ruffled him enough to break through that generally calm exterior most people considered to be Robertson Sullivan. She also remembered how, at the wedding reception where Aunt Katie was killed, once the immediate numbness wore off, there’d been this flash of violence about his blaming himself for everything. LauraLynn had no idea why he would feel that or why he was suspicious about his friend Zeitgeist’s death, or what he meant by SHMRG, the reference went by so quickly. (At first, she thought he’d said merde! since he occasionally enjoyed using foreign profanities to spice up his conversation.)

Perhaps it wasn’t some unhinged conspiracy theory coming out of nowhere that he’d suddenly fallen into after all, she wondered. God knows, classical music had enough of its own crazies – but murder? Could he actually be the victim of someone he knew, some rival who would be out to “get him”? Who would have threatened him to stop writing his opera, if they felt it was too close to reality? Someone who knew enough about their family – maybe somebody in their family?

Could this insider be their cousin Maurice Harty? The “family pipsqueak,” they used to call him when they were kids, the one who inherited Rob’s father’s company once he himself declined it? Even as children, Maurie was jealous of Rob’s height and good looks, much less his success as an adult.

Maurie divided his time between London and Manhattan, always keeping his distance, but called her shortly before Zeitgeist's funeral. They’d even had dinner, detestable as it was, in that same restaurant.

Had he, she wondered, planted some kind of bug on her during dinner – wasn't she carrying the same purse? – was that how he might have learned the truth behind Rob’s opera?

Was he intent on eliminating her, now, assuming she knew too much? This unexpected realization practically knocked her sideways.

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

It was enough to make Fictitia consider giving up smoking once again – “Ye freakin’ gods! Did I really do that?” – accidentally flicking a still smoldering butt into a nearby puddle of gasoline. The motel erupted into flames reaching sky-high, immediately alerting the fire department followed quickly by a battalion of policemen. Lucky to escape with her tattoos intact, Fictitia was convinced she’d spend the rest of her life behind bars – she could just imagine the tweet, now: “Reporter Turns Arsonist #accident #stupidthingsthatendcareers.”

What she hadn’t realized then, the hot young violinist she was stalking – a blonde bombshell in tight mini-pants named Skripasha Scricci with legions of fans in both pop and classical worlds – was in fact a notorious drug smuggler working for a syndicate of underground musicians, something mysteriously known as SHMRG.

The international police had been trying for most of the past year to pin anything on Scricci they could manage, but she had proven too smart for them with her dazzling technique. Scurrying from the concert hall or the latest club she’d been playing, her entourage easily lost them every time. While fans cheered every pelvic thrust in her Sibelius Concerto on stage, afterward they could purchase her “special” CDs, the ones with synthetic drugs artfully concealed in the jewel-case’s glittery lining.

Glitter, technique aside, was everywhere – her outlandish costumes, her make-up, even in the varnish of what was supposed to be a Strad worth $3,000,000 – the essence of Scricci as total package. Who’d notice a little glitter in the spine of a CD case? And her CDs always proved very popular. Drug agents disguised as concert security looked on oblivious to the distribution, looking instead for the usual clandestine dealing. Nothing seemed odd beyond the higher than normal price for her recordings.

This peculiarity was what tipped Fictitia LaMouche off in the first place, not that trendy teenagers raved about Sibelius but that they’d actually go buy something as antiquated as a CD. While others went to the laptop and downloaded direct to their iPods, there were long lines for the CDs.

It hadn’t been Fictitia’s plan, busting a drug smuggler – far from it. She just wanted to find out why Skripasha’s posse, after each performance, retired to some dreary, flea-bitten, barely respectable motel. A superstar of her magnitude holed up in the classiest digs available, given her image and equally inflated fees. Yet, moments after dropping her off at the local Hilton, the rest of them scurried off to Cheap Sleep, perhaps feeling uncomfortable in this affluent “milieu,” ironically stretching the poshest pronunciation.

This was the kind of tantalizing stuff Fictitia’s on-line followers drooled over, not just tweeting about the concert itself – how many ways can you say “awesome”? – but getting behind the scenes. No one’s seen Skripasha out of costume, what she really looked like: a posting like that’d be Internet Gold.

The motel they’d gone to was in the seediest part of town, dilapidated storefronts and burned-out vehicles littering empty lots, reminding her of by-gone aristocrats slumming like zombies in old-time opium dens. She’d slipped a tiny GPS transmitter into a carton of their CDs – child’s play, really – and followed them easily.

Then she’d set the place on fire – “like, really, an accident,” she mentally protested every time the memory returned. But where the fuck did all the coppers come from, so fast?

The next day, all the newspapers and TV reporters in town touted it as one of their biggest crime raids, blaming the dangerous combination of rock ethos and repressed classical music angst, while the authorities bragged of busting a notorious ring of CD bootleggers using the motel as their ramshackle studio. What irritated the police most were the crime-scene shots perps claimed were photoshopped to look like a drug lab, gone viral all over the internet before they’d even processed Scricci’s mug-shot.

The symphony, meanwhile, had to appease irate audiences with a substitute soloist, an innocent-looking conservatory student who played exquisitely but exasperated fans who knew Scricci’s video with the Siberian Transvestite Orchestra. Legions of rock purists protested loudly, tweeting “U call that teh f-ing Sibelius Cocnerto? Bugger off up-tight tux dudes!”

Skirting around the back of the motel, Fictitia managed to evade police and make a surprising but not unexpected discovery, getting several quick snaps on her phone through the room’s torn curtains. The flames racing toward them, Skripasha’s posse hurried to salvage anything possible, drug paraphernalia scattered across several makeshift tables.

Once police arrived, everything drug-related disappeared out the back door past Fictitia, carried by a heavyset man in black. Most disappointing was the discovery Skripasha was really a man in glam-drag.

That big hulking guy, she figured, must’ve been some kind of courier, chosen more for awesome power than sheer speed. More important was getting pictures of Skripasha Scricci led away in handcuffs.

But here again was a discarded cigarette, an explosion and a big hulking guy running away from the scene.

Emerging from the rubble of the explosion, this beast-like figure had clawed its way out through the smoldering hole, glaring right at her as she snapped a pic before stepping back.

The only difference this time was the heavyset man rushing past her didn’t seem dressed in anything at all, naked except for those diaphanous harem pants missing one of the legs.

Whoa, could this be the same big guy as Scricci’s courier – srsly?

This had “WTF” written all over it.

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

The noise began sharply, almost hesitantly before reaching a highpoint, then pausing as I found myself holding my breath.

“What the fuck, indeed,” I wondered, sensing my companion’s equally breath-holding trepidation, as we turned to look at each other, our eyes bugged out realizing that neither of us had a clue.

The unmistakable screech of metal on metal shredding through the oppressive silence brought me out of my verge-of-doomsday musings, whatever D’Arcy’s role in these events or if I might survive them.

It was bad enough being alone in this vast empty blackness with a man who possibly could be Rob’s killer, but now it was clear we were ourselves not totally alone. Had the agents who’d been pursuing us finally located our hiding place and if so, what were our options?

D’Arcy pointed up ahead as this metallic swoop resolved into anticipated exhalation, a crunching reverberant downbeat following its prolonged upbeat, itself followed by the distant scream of a man in great pain.

"It appears someone else has entered the shop," he whispered to me. "I just heard the security gate close."

"But the scream was on the outside," I suggested with some caution. "Though I can hear someone breathing inside."

"Could be," D’Arcy observed, "but who screamed? Someone caught in the door?"

More to the point, perhaps, was who’s now inside the shop with us, but I kept this to myself. There weren’t many possibilities to choose from and no time for consideration. Still, for each choice, I calculated there wouldn’t be many useful options beyond getting the hell out of there.

But the question was, whether it was the murderer or the agents from the IMP up ahead of us, I'm here beside a man who may be collaborating with the murderer.

I was pretty sure that wouldn't have been Cameron screaming like that, but what if he'd found our location? What if he was wandering around out there and had found LauraLynn?

It was more likely we'd heard Dhabbodhú scream but what caused that? And where was LauraLynn? Was she safe?

Then there was a slight click off in the distance behind us, a barely perceptible disruption echoing in the silence like a door pulled shut triggering the latch, then someone going “Shhh!”

“Two people,” D’Arcy said, nodding behind us, “but only one this way.”

Not to mention the guy who screamed.

Motioning to start crawling behind him, he whispered, “Hand me your phone,”

“Yours probably works better than mine, here.”

“Not the point,” he muttered, turning toward me. “I need a diversion.”

“I need my phone,” I protested, trying not to sound too defensive. “How would the murderer continue texting me?”

Reluctantly, I handed it to him since it was, after all, Cameron’s.

He tapped my number into his own phone then slid mine down the aisle back toward our latest arrivals.

Something metallic got knocked over onto the floor, a woman cursed under her breath and two people, apparently, shushed her. Turning back, D’Arcy held up his phone and, with determination, hit “send.”

“Look,” I said, barely breathing, “up ahead, can you see that shadow? Looks like a woman – maybe it’s LauraLynn!”

Just as Cameron’s phone began its familiar annoying ring-tone, everything around us was rocked by an ear-splitting, earth-shattering blast.

I never thought he’d booby-trap his phone with an anti-theft explosive app.

= = = = = = =
to be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

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