Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Lost Chord: Installment 12

...continued from the previous installment of the full-length novel, "The Lost Chord," a musical parody of Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol." (If you are new to "The Lost Chord", you can begin at the beginning, here.) 

In our last installment, Dr. Dhabbohdhú arrived at the lab, just as surprised to meet Haley Gedankgesang as she was to meet him. Meanwhile, the mysterious room deep beneath the Met turned out to be just another musty old practice room, but one that had some rather startling contents.

= = = = = = =

Dr. Iobbha Dhabbohdhú looked down at the appealingly plump form of Haley Gedankgesang with obvious surprise. She had not been expected but perhaps she might prove useful, after all. He would try to be his most charming self since there was no point in alarming her unduly or leaving anything like a clue behind before he had accomplished what he set out to do this night.

As they walked past the various storage pods within this section of the Concourse, he attempted to engage her in small talk about their surroundings, there, what the various rooms were and what kind of place it must be that LauraLynn had invited him to see.

No, no one else would be there – Robertson, she said without sounding too concerned, had not yet shown up and, at this hour, now, may not (“Not,” the good doctor thought without a trace of a smile) – and as long as they were walking past these other rooms, she saw no reason not to give him a bit of a tour.

“This room, here, houses some antiques from the old Met, things moved up here for safe keeping when the New Met was ready to open in 1966.”

“Some old costumes, I would imagine, from the days of Lily Pons and Caruso, I would imagine?”

“I think so, yes, but they're mostly kept in storage trunks when they're not on display in one of the Met's gallery rooms upstairs. It's more props and set pieces, from what I remember,” she tried to explain, not being fairly familiar with the opera house or, for that matter, with opera. Her grandmother used to drag her to the Met when she was a child but it never left much of an impression on her beyond the hours of having to sit still in the dark.

“I grew up loving opera, myself,” Dhabbohdhú explained. “What sorts of things do they have in there?”

Haley was finding it very difficult to resist his charms. Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, she looked up at him and admitted she wasn't quite sure, something about Toscanini's old casting couch (or was it Mahler's?). Then she blushed.

“Ah, the stories that bit of furniture could tell, I'm sure,” he said smilingly. “I really would love to see that. Toscanini was someone my father had told me about seeing when he conducted at Carnegie Hall and Mahler – well, Mahler is just one of my favorite composers, so either way, it would be absolutely fabulous to see it.” He cocked his head to the left and looked at her expectantly.

She blushed and gulped some more. “Well, I suppose. It's not like we're in a big hurry, since Robertson isn't here yet.” She was beginning to think perhaps it would be better to leave him under the impression somebody else would be along soon, just in case.

She quickly punched in her PIN code and the door quietly swung open. Dhabbohdhú, looking down over her, was unable to process the code fast enough – 65-something, but that was all.

The light was dim, the room dusty but otherwise clean and orderly. There, just inside the door, was an old Victorian-style day bed or reclining couch, its once brilliant red plush upholstery still bright enough to give evidence of its value. Whether or not it had the ignominious distinction of being a “casting couch” per se, that's what it reminded her of. Dhabbohdhú examined the tag on it and saw that it had been requested for the maestro's dressing room in 1908 by Gustav Mahler but Toscanini had requested it for his own use when he continued to conduct there for the next five years.

There were a few cushions and a wig box labeled Thaïs placed on it with more boxes and crates piled high behind and around it. A hat rack stood empty next to it and between that and a chifferobe were propped several items that Dhabbohdhú carefully examined – a shepherd's crook, a more elaborate bishop's crozier and a fancy spear with a long pointed blade that, according to the tag, had been used in the very first production of Verid's Aïda back at the original Met in 1886.

Haley was beginning to get uncomfortable at the delay and mentioned that Dr. Sullivan must be waiting for them down at the lab.

Unfazed, Dhabbohdhú continued to look at some of the items in the room's dim light. Turning to her, he smiled and said “Have you ever sat on this récamier? I imagine it must have quite a sense of history about it.”

Récamier? She looked puzzled.

“The little day bed here, your 'casting couch,' as you called it. In that white lab coat of yours, I'm sure you'd look quite stunning on its crimson velvet upholstery.”

Really? She was trying to remember when a man – much less as virile looking a man as this – had ever paid the slightest attention to her.

“Well, no, I'd never thought about it, really...” She felt herself blushing.

“Oh, but you must – I insist!” He quickly moved the cushions and the wig box to the floor to make room for her.

She cautiously draped herself over the couch, thinking how awkward it must look with her in her lab coat and sneakers, trying to look sexy when who knows what opera singers in what glorious costumes must have stretched themselves out on it a hundred years ago.

“Now close your eyes and imagine that you are... let's see... oh... Claudia Muggiscamente as Aïda...”


“One of my favorite opera singers, a great Verdi soprano from the 1920s and '30s.” I knew you'd never know the difference: I just made her up.

Haley threw her head back with an imperious gesture as if she were about to say “Peel me a grape, Big Boy” when Dhabbohdhú quickly poised the blade of the Egyptian spear at her throat. She opened her eyes and realized what was about to happen – well, one of the things that could happen, none of which were very pleasant to contemplate.

“What the hell are you trying to do?” she whispered, afraid to move, her eyes wide with terror and betrayal. Claudia Muggi-whatever, indeed!

He reached down and yanked her ID-badge off her lab-coat, tearing a hole in the pocket in the process. “What is your PIN-code?”

She had to admit, at least he knew that 'PIN Number' was redundant but still she wouldn't speak. He pressed harder against the point of the spear.

“Who are you,” she demanded to know, knowing also it was fairly pointless, the spear aside. “You're from Grendel, aren't you!”

Now it was his turn to look surprised: Who? “Give me your access number – now!” He shook the badge over her.

“Security will have seen us enter here, they'll know you did it.”

“Security is too busy watching the World Series,” he sneered. “They won't realize it till long after it's too late to do you any good. Now, what is the access number for this badge?”

“654 – 837,” she said breathlessly. “Now, let me go!”

He remembered seeing the 65, so he figured the rest of it was okay. “Are you sure?” He nudged the spear-tip closer into her throat. She could feel the skin about to break.

“Yes,” she breathed, trying desperately not to move. “It spells out OLIVER... as in Oliver Twist - it was the name of my dog when I was a kid...”

Cute. “Would you like some more?” And with that he rammed the spear through her throat and into the fabric of the day-bed she was lying on. “How about an extra twist?” He then turned the blade before she was even able to scream, her voice now a raspy, impotent gurgle.

“I'm terribly sorry, my dear – what did you say your name was? – but you won't be able to sing Aïda ever again.” Dhabbohdhú chuckled softly to himself.

Then he noticed her blood had spattered across his suit, ruining his shirt and jacket. “Bitch,” he hissed at her, yanking the spear out of her throat, then wiping it against her lab-coat before ramming it forcefully into her abdomen, leaving it there, pinning her to the couch, if it mattered any more. “Let's see if anyone will cast you in a revival of Sweeney Todd, instead...”

As he tried to wipe her blood off his sleeves, he continued his pleasant conversation with her. “Yes, I think you could have quite a career in the theater, now. Too bad most of the roles are for dead men – Buoso Donati in Gianni Schicchi, for instance, or Pentheus in Hans Werner Henze's setting of the Bacchae – ah, but there, the body is already dismembered. You would find it very boring having to pull yourself together, night after night, after each performance... Maybe I could write Arsenic and Old Lace just for you – ah, but there again, all the victims are men, aren't they? Ah well, too bad – for now, my dear, you will have to satisfy yourself with this small walk-on in my latest and so far greatest work.”

Then he realized, given all the costumes in this room, he would not have to worry about his blood spattered suit giving him away. He opened the wig box and saw a great pile of hair intended for the courtesan Thaïs. In the chifferobe was a doublet from Rigoletto and the black silk cape that Tito Gobbi had worn as Scarpia. And in this box, some harem pants from The Pearl Fishers. He stuffed his own clothes into the chifferobe and turned out the light, gently shutting the door to Pod-3 behind him.

This was not the first person he had killed, nor, he was hoping, would it be the last. The events leading up to this night had begun years ago when he murdered – quite by accident though it felt good in hindsight – Katherine Shaw. And next, if all went according to plan, he had set his sights on Katie Shaw's niece, LauraLynn Sullivan.

Dhabbohdhú looked around cautiously and saw no one but assumed the security cameras were somewhere: oh well, he couldn't do anything about them, anyway, not at this point. Things will move quickly, now. With any luck, the next few minutes will happen while somebody's hitting a home run: the guard will never takes his eyes off the monitor to notice him.

I don't have to worry about sweet-talking little LauraLynn into opening her lab. Oliver gave me the key!

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

Practice rooms, of course, were part of a musician's training, both for endurance and to prepare them for working under the worst conditions imaginable, surrounded by all manner of noise and distractions. Row after row of them lined hallways in music schools across the country, probably around the world. It seemed a matter of efficiency, providing private space and pianos for thousands of students that should, in many respects, have at least managed to prepare them for non-musical lives with jobs in cubicles in the corporate world, comparable space that is about as efficient, private and sound-proof as most practice rooms, stocked instead with computers about as fine and reliable as typically cheap and overly abused practice-room pianos.

But what, Leahy-Hu wanted to know, was one doing down here, deep beneath Lincoln Center, and assigned as “personal space” to the Center's director, Robertson Sullivan? Didn't he have a grand piano in his apartment where he could compose in privacy? Would he have needed a space to compose while he's at work? And if so, why would he come down here to write music when, frankly, it would've been easier just to go over to Juilliard and borrow a teacher's studio or, for that matter, walk home to his apartment at the Dakota?

I was thinking the same thing: something about this space wasn't quite right. It wasn't the stale popcorn or the deteriorated can of soda but the fact that it had not been used for some time: it was as if it were a time capsule meant to memorialize a moment in time. But why?

Phil Harmon's fading flashlight flickered across the four forgotten walls: a tattered tapestry of indistinguishable pattern had been draped across the back wall and letters had been spray-painted on the wall opposite the piano.

“What's that say,” Leahy-Hu asked, grabbing hold of Harmon's hand to steady the light.


“Shmrg?” She looked at me a scowl. “What the hell does that mean?!”

Buzz almost froze at the sight of it.

Chief Harmon thought it referred to the evil Soviet spy agency in some of the James Bond movies from the '70s.

“No,” Leahy-Hu said, “that's SMERSH. And SHMRF would be those blue cartoon creatures, I guess. This, I'm thinking, has some musical significance – am I right, professor?”

“You would, of course, be correct, Director. It's a system some music teachers use to open their students' minds when listening to music analytically. If they can focus on one topic at a time or, hearing something they want to make note of, they can place it in the column of a certain topic.”

Harmon asked, “like bingo?”

I chuckled. “In a way, yes, but without any prizes. It was developed in 1970 by a musicologist named Jan LaRue for stylistic analysis. Robertson and I had used it in our ear-training courses when we taught in college, part of a junior-level ear-training course he and I had developed to help students organize their thoughts when listening to a piece of music. It helps them identify stylistic characteristics of a particular piece so they can make a more informed guess about when a piece might have been composed or by whom. It also just gets them to listen more carefully, trying to describe a piece of music and taking all of these observations into consideration when talking about it later. You'd be surprised how many musicians don't really know how to listen to music!”

“But what does it stand for? – I know SMERSH is an acronym for Smyert' Shpionem or Death to Spies.” Leahy-Hu was about to wax nostalgic for her days in the CIA.

“LaRue grouped the different things you could listen for into these five categories – Sonority, Harmony, Melody, Rhythm and Growth, adding as an afterthought T for Text if there are words involved.”

“Clever. Not quite so evil-sounding, then...” She sounded almost disappointed.

“Depends on which end of the pop quiz you were on,” Buzz confessed, remembering back to his days in my Form and Analysis class. SHMRG was the bane of his existence, that semester.

“It was a step on the way to discovery – or at least, discovering more about the music you'd be listening to. Admit it, Buzz, you've used it when you've gone to concerts – maybe not writing it down, but cataloging it in your mind, making note of different facts and observations you've heard?”

“Yeah, you're right. In fact, wasn't that what we were doing on the trip in here, playing 'What Makes It Bad' with that hunting-horn overture?”

“Uh, well, yes, actually,” I said, trying to deflect what could only get us off-topic, at this point.

“Whatever,” Leahy-Hu said. “And you know what my next question is going to be, professor?”

“You know, we haven't had dinner yet,” Buzz said as he turned and looked at me. Apparently the pop-corn was proving too tempting.

“I assume you're going to ask me what it's doing on the wall of Robertson's secret practice room,” I said, trying desperately to ignore Buzz's observation.


“There was also another association Robertson and I had with SHMRG but I'm afraid it's another Latin quote.”

“Another canonic clue?”

“Not directly. It was something he made up along the way. He used it as a kind of epigram on all his class material at least for a few years: not sure I can remember it exactly...” The thought that it might have any bearing on the case was limited, considering the only people who would know it were me and a handful of his students who might bother to remember it.

Sapientia hortat mentem requiere gradus,” pointing at the wall as I spoke, as if inscribing it onto the plaster myself. “Yes, I think that's it. Sapientia hortat mentem requiere gradus.”

Leahy-Hu counted out the letters of the acronym on the fingers of her right hand. “Okay. And...?”

“Oh, sorry. Wisdom urges the mind... to seek the steps.

“So you're saying we should be looking for more steps? Like through a secret portal that would lead to a stairway at the bottom of which we would find the answers to the ancient mysteries?”

“That, I think, would be more of a leap than a step. I really don't think Robertson was talking about a specific set of steps, rather just the steps in the process of examining everything in front of us to attain the knowledge each of us sought in becoming a musician. The whole process was one of...”

HOLY CRAP!” Buzz shouted, pointing at the back wall as Leahy-Hu jumped almost a foot in the air.

At that moment, a light draft had come out of nowhere and the tapestry billowed just slightly. In the dim light of Harmon's flashlight, I couldn't be sure if it was a shadow or caused by the flickering of his rapidly fading batteries, but Harmon marched quickly across the room and pulled the fabric aside. It nearly crumbled in his hand.

Behind it was a niche in the wall, about waist-high – well, unless you were Director Leahy-Hu – and just a couple of feet square. In it stood three objects. Immediately recognizing two of them, I felt I had been knocked sideways.

Mostly, it amazed me that, perhaps, Leahy-Hu and our alleged maniac might be right. Was Robertson Sullivan using this space to hide the ancient mysteries of music? Was this in fact the portal they had been talking about?

One looked like a stone tablet, the kind that would have had the Ten Commandments carved on it. The other was clearly a pyramid. The third, however, was too obscure to identify.

- - - - - - -
to be continued...

= = = = = = =
The Lost Chord, a Music Appreciation Thriller, is a full-length novel written by Dick Strawser and is a musical parody of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. It is being serialized on this blog: watch for the next segment on Monday, August 2nd.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Nickle & Diming the Arts

While Arts Funding has been slashed in Pennsylvania and across the country – it's always an easy target – this response to similar cuts in the United Kingdom is something perhaps American artists and arts groups should follow. Rather than go the moral and cultural and social high ground about the importance of Art which is then going to be cut anyway, why not present the Arts as an economic component of our community to show the disparities between the amount of government money supporting the Arts compared to the amount of government money supporting Business & Industry?

Perhaps someone with knowledge of our own local facts and figures could come up with the Pennsylvanian Equivalent of these British observations:

Arts Subsidies in Great Britain (that is, government moneys budgeted for the Arts) amount to 0.07% of the total budget's expenditures which in turn amounts to about 17 pence (roughly $0.26) per person per week.

This is basically “less than half the cost of a pint of milk” per person, depending on the market value of milk in this country or the rate of exchange between American and British currencies on any given day.

One of the big financial issues in the UK has been their equivalent of the Bank Bail-Out.

According to Mervyn King, the Bank of England governor, the size of the bank bailout is 'breathtaking' at close to £1 trillion. Not many of us even realise how big a trillion is. A million seconds takes 11.5 days; a trillion takes 31,709 years.”

If each person in Great Britain were to shoulder up this debt with a “one-off payment,” it would cost them “a mere £16,666.66.” Blogger Daniel Bye estimates that, at the rate of a ½ pint of milk per week, should keep a British subject in milk through the year 4780.

Other similes could be made in measurable terms: say, in height with “a small book compared to three Everests,” or in time with “how long it takes to read this paragraph compared to the time it takes to run the Tour de France (including sleep).” The popular media love making sports analogies so in this instance, we could kill two birds with one stone.

Since the British Cultural Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, thinks the Arts should look more to philanthropy for their support, wouldn't it be great if he and the other 21 millionaires in the British cabinet would ante up “the Arts Council's £58m grants budget, used to fund work by new and emerging artists”?

But then there is also the argument that perhaps the Arts can actually be economically feasible when you consider that, as the Department of Culture, Media & Sport (as it's known in Britain) responded to one blogger's question, in “2008, Arts Council England spent £100m on theatre [and] the VAT [Value Added Tax] receipts from London theatre alone were worth £75m.” How much additional tax revenue was generated by theatres outside London?

And of course, considering the corporate defense for Wall Street Bonuses or the recent get-away parachute of about $18 million handed to Tony Hayward of BP, how do these compare with the typical annual income of a free-lance musician or actor in this country?

It is, of course, easy to say “there is no more money” or that “we're trying to find money for education and health care” or that "I don't like classical music therefore it is not important," but does the cutting of a comparatively small amount that severely wounds the Arts in our communities make a viable argument?

Even conservative politicians would have difficulty buying a strategy that cuts something that at least makes money.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Lost Chord: Installment 11

...continued from the previous installment of "The Lost Chord," a full-length novel and parody of Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" - we've discovered odd references to an obscure 8th Century bishop, a famous madrigal by Gesualdo and some uncomfortably familiar smells while traversing a dark underground hallway deep in the bowels of Lincoln Center...

*** ***** ******** ***** *** CHAPTER IV *** ***** ******** ***** ***

“Hey, Con.” The phone crackled and sputtered like the fountain behind him.

“Yo, Ond, wazzup?”

Officer Ondine Martineau was up-dating Officer Constantine Sordino on the latest call from Chief Harmon and asking him to wait at the Fountain for V.C. D’Arcy, the architect who is security liaison on the latest project by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the first architectural firm to win the MacArthur Prize and the primary force behind the designs for Lincoln Center’s massive 50th Anniversary renovations.

“Will do.” Not that he wouldn’t rather be sitting in his pseudo-cubicle at the LiCPASH trailer watching the game which had started minutes ago. He was a closet Phillies fan, having grown up in Philadelphia and gotten his start on the police force there. He was never comfortable with bullies in general and had quickly developed a distaste for the Yankees ubiquitous “we-deserve-to-win-because-we’re-the-Yankees” attitude during the first four games.

But he knew, if he valued his job sanity, not to let his colleagues know about it, so like many things, he kept it bottled up inside him, not that others wouldn’t suspect. I mean, I’m always so muted when everybody starts cheering another Yankees win: they must know... That was just his natural M.O., as he explained it – he’d learned long ago to keep a lid on it. Still, he’d worn his lucky Phillies T-Shirt and on occasion would pat his chest as if every pat would bring them good luck.

It wasn’t long until he saw Architect D’Arcy striding across the plaza to meet him. He seemed an imperious man which at first made Sordino dislike him until he realized it was more a professional projection than his real personality. One afternoon over coffee, they were discussing last week's security breach in the Lower Concourse and D’Arcy struck him as just another genuine guy, gentle despite his being large-built on a most imposing scale.

Not that it was difficult to pick him out from the crowd of on-lookers standing around the fountain: V.C. D’Arcy, an African-American standing about 6’7” or so, could easily have been a pro basketball player. He joked that was how he got a college scholarship even if his coach and teammates couldn’t figure out why he was a combined art and music major who wanted to become an architect.

He was carrying two cups of coffee, one of which he immediately handed to Officer Sordino. Ah, he thought, a Grande Double Bacon Chip Frappuccino Blended Crème with a Double Shot and a Twist, just the way he liked it. At almost 500 calories, it was enough for a meal in itself and would be guaranteed to keep him awake late into the night. Always good when you're facing down a tough case. He was surprised D'Arcy would have remembered all that from last week.

Looking around, D'Arcy offered an informal, “Hey,” nodding in a subtle salute with his cup of coffee. “So, where's Chief Harmon? What's this all about?”

“He's down in the Concourse with Director Leahy-Hu from the ICA.”

“The Institute for Contemporary Art is here?”

“No,” Sordino said between sips. It's still too hot, dammit. I'll look like a sissy if I can't down it in one gulp. “The International Composers Alliance. Seems it's some cultural security issue.”

“What makes them think that?” D'Arcy took a long swig of his coffee and casually surveyed the scene.

“Well, for one thing, have you heard about the ear?”

His eyebrows arched. “Ear? No, Officer Martineau said it was something weird, though: she didn't go into much detail.”

Sordino brought him up to speed on what facts he knew, so far, without trying to editorialize, and said that Harmon, the guy from ICA, Officer Mobile and some middle-aged professor – “a real character” – had just entered the Lower Concourse through the Met – “something about a room down there marked MPL-440 or some such, maybe has a clue.” Yeah, they could use a few clues, between 'em.

“Does he have a master key? Most of those rooms are going to be locked – I'm sure he knows that.”

“I can check with him, if you want?”

“No, Officer Sordino, that won't be necessary. I'd better get down there, though. My boss isn't going to be too thrilled if they break open a storage room full of glass plates and they end up breaking stuff.” He calmly strode off, lifting his coffee in salute as he headed nonchalantly toward the Met's lobby. Not likely we'd be storing glass plates down there, but hey...

Sordino sipped his coffee and nodded back at him, then looked around to make sure it looked like he was doing something. Not likely they'd be storing glass plates down there, but hey...

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

“Shouldn't be much further, I'm guessing.”

Chief Harmon's weak flashlight sputtered over the doors as we went past. If the room numbers were chronological – we'd just passed MPL-112 – I figured we'd have another mile or so to go. Certainly, this thing didn't extend under Central Park, did it?

It also wasn't a straight hallway. There were frequent turns not unlike a rat's maze and not always at angles you'd expect. It was kind of spooky knowing you couldn't see what was ahead of you but also rather unsettling when you realized you wouldn't be able to see anything coming up behind you, either.

“Were we supposed to be counting steps from the entrance way to that last door? How will we know how many steps to take to reach the midpoint? And do we count the steps going down the stairs?” Buzz was always concerned – invariably too late – about things we should've done if we're supposed to be following directions.

“Perhaps he just means the distance,” I said, trying to sound helpful but ultimately unconcerned. We were looking for a room with a number, right? Who cares about the number of steps. But then, it got me thinking: even with all the turns we were taking, we could cover half the actual distance but still be taking as many steps to do it in.

“Or did he mean we should take the same number of steps but in half the tempo – I mean, like instead of ¼ notes, we should be using 1/8th notes, now?”

“Buzz, I can't see the benefit of walking along at ♩=120 then suddenly break into ♪ just to increase the sense of tempo.”

“Right, but you'd have to admit it'd be creative, right? Especially if he's watching us on some spy-cam somewhere and would get a laugh out of us trying to follow him literally, just skipping through some underground passageways...”

“You know what they say, 'dance like no one is watching'...” But I knew I had to restrain Buzz or he'd suddenly start moving twice as fast and trample over Harmon and Leahy-Hu.

“Could you two just can it for a while?” Leahy-Hu obviously did not like the idea of our having come along. She sounded like a disgruntled public school teacher tired of reprimanding kids who've gotten a little too talkative during a quiet passage in an assembly program.

Harmon's phone crackled into existentialism. Barely audible, it sounded like Officer Martinau.

“Chief, interesting thing, here. We can't find any of the keys for the Met Pod Level rooms but it doesn't really seem to matter. It appears when they began the renovation project, Diller and Scofido had checked all these rooms and found they hadn't been used since the building opened in 1966.”

“So what are we supposed to be looking for, then?” Harmon sounded annoyed. He wanted to ask if there'd been any score in the game yet, and he knew she wanted to tell him if there were, but figured with Leahy-Hu listening in, it wouldn't be a good idea.

“Well, it says here, curiously enough, MPL-440 is... oooooh!” At this point, her voice rose up an octave, very eerily. “It's marked 'Private Space' and approved by Architect V.C. D'Arcy.”

“Private space? For who?”

“Whom,” she said, “it's 'for whom.' Let's see. Oooooh!” Her voice rose up again. “Robertson Hope Sullivan!” You could almost hear the “Ta da!” in her voice.

“What would Sullivan want with a tiny little storage room way down here?!” Harmon thanked her but they had already lost contact.

“That's what we're about to find out, aren't we?” said Director Leahy-Hu.

We came to a split where we should either go right or slightly left but there was no indication what we should do.

“I think we go right, here,” Officer Mobile said.

“Huh,” Buzz added, “a fork in the road: we should definitely take it.”

Ah, Harmon thought, the kid knows his Yogi Bera lines: maybe he's a Yankees fan after all. I kinda like the kid – dumb but genuine, not stuffy like the old professor guy.

“Wait, what's that?” Buzz pointed at something he found on the wall behind us. We'd just passed through an archway and centered over it was a familiar line:

Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate

“Well, it's not Greek, at least.” Leahy-Hu sounded sarcastically relieved.

“No, it's Italian. Anyone want to hazard a guess?” I added, “Hint: it's not about music but friends of mine have joked it should be engraved over the entry ways of many a music school.”

“Leave all hope, you who enter,” Officer Mobile offered.

“Better known as 'Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here,' or more inaccurately as 'Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.' Dante, again.”

“Again?” Leahy-Hu wanted to know what I meant by that.

“Well, when I was on the phone with the so-called suspect, I thought he said something about Robertson not being at the Ninth Circle yet - though he was 'in the State of Limbo'... and of course, I was standing there looking out over Dante Park in front of Lincoln Center and all...”

Buzz pointed at the sign. “That's supposed to be the inscription over the entrance to hell, right?”

“That's right, Buzz – from Dante's Divine Comedy.”

“But if that's posted on the entrance to Hell and it's placed on this side...” He seemed perplexed.

“Right, I hadn't noticed that: our alleged maniac, assuming he's the one who posted this sign – and it looks just like all the others, doesn't it?” I added looking around to Chief Harmon for confirmation – “he must be thinking Hell is 'out there' somewhere, not in here. It's going to be hell when we return.” I realized I was holding my tote bag close to my chest as I surveyed the wall. “But I am wondering, on the other hand, if it's not more an appeal for us to abandon the idea of finding Robertson Hope Sullivan.”

A moment of profound silence as we all contemplated the inference.

“More hooey,” said Leahy-Hu under her breath. She was the first to turn and trudge onward. “How much further till we reach this room of yours, Chief? Any guesses on what kind of bull-crap we're going to find there?”

Not one to win a Positive Thinking Award today, are we?

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

Ever since LauraLynn had taken her back to show her the lab that first time they'd met over lunch, Haley Gedankgesang never really got used to trekking through the darkened halls of Lincoln Center's underground lair. While having a cloth-covered cube with a view of a window was one of the few nice things she could recall about corporate life at GTI, she missed the genial camaraderie with co-workers and, in general, the presence of natural light. True, working on LauraLynn's projects was a blast compared to the drudgery of never-ending code and she was herself both inspiring and enjoyable to be around. But Haley often found herself amazed when, leaving the bunker behind, she would ascend into the world above ground and realize it was still there, untouched by terrorist bombs and just as vibrant as ever. If she had walked out into a landscape of smoke and rubble, it would not have surprised her: she figured there would probably be few places she could work where she'd be safe from, say, zombie attacks. The only problem was, there was no place to store supplies to live on during a nuclear winter until spring might return.

Just the other day, she found a drawer full of those small bags of chips she'd bring in for the occasional snack and wondered just how long she'd be able to live on that if the world came to an end. With the rest of Niebelheim being empty, with its cavernous vastness going to waste, she fantasized about bringing in boxes and boxes of canned goods and other non-perishable items to sustain them in an emergency. But then, seeing the promotion for yet another movie about the destruction of the earth, this one hyping the latest rage that the ancient Mayans had predicted the end of the world in 2012, she realized she hadn't counted on earthquakes from deep within the planet. Then she'd laugh and try to figure out why she'd want to be the last woman alive any way: she never liked the idea of having kids in the first place, so if the future of civilization depended on her to repopulate the globe, she was not the only one who'd be in a bad way.

Though she loved her work in the lab and found it both intensely stimulating and extremely satisfying, it made her think back to the mind-numbing regularity she had experienced in the offices of GTI. Why had they sought out brilliant young computer programmers only to turn them into mindless drones working on projects that would invariably be terminated for lack of funding just as they'd be nearing completion? This was something she often discussed with The Doctors Sullivan (as she usually referred to both LauraLynn and Robertson in the collective sense): creativity was, after all, something highly prized and yet here they were, at GTI, working very hard to stifle it and drum it completely out of you.

How many times would she approach her supervisor with suggestions or new ideas for other, more forward-looking projects, only to be greeted with the same kind of responses young Oliver Twist had experienced in the orphanage? In hindsight, it occurred to her that this must have been GTI's corporate philosophy: round up as much of the creative gene pool as possible and then take them out of circulation before they would go work for the competition.

She had gotten used to the flexibility of working with LauraLynn Sullivan, feeling at times like a plant shooting forth new leaves after a drearily long winter. She had even gotten used to the walk through the vast blackness of Pod-Niebelheim to make the transition between the daylight of the outside world and the new world she was helping evolve in the lab. She was convinced that, when they would reveal their studies to the world and normal every-day people would start believing in themselves and their own innate creativity, it would markedly change the world for the better and that more than just the offices of places like GTI would crumble into nothingness. People would rise up out of the slavery of their cubicles and demand greater equality. Haley thought of herself as a “cube-warrior” ready to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the slave-masters of modern day Corporate America and she felt good about this. But she also knew that, once this information was in the hands of society, the powerful corporations would do everything in their considerable power – their dark, evil, malevolent power – to destroy her research and, quite possibly, herself as well.

Consequently, she never had any trouble keeping to herself what she was working on: if the word got out to one of her old friends from back at GTI, she knew it would not be long before they would be after her, to snuff her out and with her, everything she now held most dear in her life.

This was why she was concerned when LauraLynn casually mentioned this Dr. Dhabbohdhú guy would be joining them tonight. Did she know who he really was? Robertson's friend, another composer? Not even a research scientist? She showed her discomfort but didn't want to alarm her boss about what she was seeing as part of a vast conspiracy. Certainly, Dr. Sullivan knew about the need to keep her research confidential: otherwise, why would she have gone to all the trouble of having a lab that was almost as impenetrable as anything the government's military establishment would have constructed? Just because Robertson must trust him didn't seem a viable argument. Perhaps there was more going on here than met her eye: she wanted to find some excuse to leave shortly, to leave them alone if in fact this were some kind of romantic tryst – who knows? – but she also knew she wanted to be there in case she was needed. Haley would have felt more comfortable if Robertson were already there: it wasn't like LauraLynn to be duplicitous and lying that he would be there as usual when she knew he wasn't. She was certainly on edge about something and that story she'd just told her – that something deeply significant and potentially disturbing as it was revealing actually did exist – was just too creepy for words, even scarier coinciding with the news of their imminent visitor, Dr. Dhabbohdhú.

She made the transition from the light of the lab – the Light of Truth as she viewed it – through the vastness of Nieblheim – the Protecting Darkness – then out into the sequence of storage pods to reach the door that would take her out into the world beyond, her gradual acclimation toward reality. Every time she made this walk on her way home, she felt this, in many ways, was what Eurydice must have felt, the gradual leaving behind of things of such immense importance that were so unlike anything any of her friends could possibly identify with, there was no sense in trying to describe to them the incommensurable. At times, she felt a bit like Ishtar, going through the Seven Gates in and out of the Underworld, but there were other associations with that ancient Goddess of Babylon – not to mention that awful movie with Dustin Hoffman – that she'd rather not think about. Being creative was one thing: being so literally academic was just plain pedantic.

But this time, she would not be going home, only allowing a stranger into their midst before returning to the Shining Truth of the Lab.

When she reached the Outer Door, she opened it to discover a tall, well-dressed man, muscular and broad-chested, who seemed to be just as surprised to see her as she was, ultimately, to see him.

“Dr. Dhabbohdhú, I presume?”

Considering her usually lively imagination, that was all she could come up with? Or, after she could hear in the back of her mind the distant voice of an old English teacher prompting her not to end a sentence with a preposition, correcting herself: that was up with which all you could come?

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

I was convinced there was nothing concrete we were going to find down here except maybe more concrete. This idea we were on the search for some artifact, some physical document containing ancient wisdom struck me as ludicrous. But then what was in this little package Robertson had given me with the admonition to keep it safe: what was that all about?! I was beginning to think, as weird as this day had already become, what more was going to be in store for us?

It wouldn't surprise me we'd find some stone tablets of some kind down here. Though Lincoln Center was only 50 years old – and that, just since the ground-breaking – anybody could've decided to store ancient objects in any one of these remote little storage rooms. Why, the Ark of the Covenant could be down here, and I wonder who above ground would even know about it?

A few more turns and angles and we were standing in front of a musty-looking, unassuming door marked MPL-440. Unlike the other rooms, several of which were left with their doors standing open, this one had an additional hatch on it with a cumbersome looking padlock on it.

Harmon tried his master key on it but it wouldn't fit. This lock was not uniform with the other regulation pod-locks: it practically swallowed Harmon's master key whole.

“Huh,” he grunted. “now what...” He scratched his chin and then suggested trying Officer Martineau again to see if Sullivan had placed a spare key with the security desk as regulations required.

But before he could reach for his phone, Leahy-Hu said “Oh, the hell with it: there is no 'try,' Chief Harmon, only 'do' or 'fail.'” And with that, she reached over and grabbed Officer Mobile's pistol and fired three quick shots against the lock.

Once the dust had cleared and they were able to peel me off the ceiling, we saw the door in fact had slowly begun to creak open, revealing a strange but familiar scent, something I had experienced many distant years ago.

As Harmon flicked his flashlight across the space before us, dust motes reflecting eerily in its pale beam, we could see and a small spinet piano against the right-side wall and a long unused, dust covered table placed perpendicularly to it, facing us. An old folding chair had fallen sideways on the floor behind it. A stained and tattered tapestry hung limply on the back wall, faded out of recognizability, and on the table a bowl of stale popcorn and an old soda can that had split open with age and leaked its contents onto the table, leaving behind a sticky-looking scar that had bubbled away until the finish had almost complete disappeared. The piano had not escaped the effects of dust and dampness, either. The ivories of several keys had warped and fallen loose and no doubt we would discovered it was grossly out-of-tune, probably with some broken strings and hammers.

“Is that a skull?” Leahy-Hu asked incredulously.

Harmon held the flashlight on it from a more intense upward angle as he entered the room.

“No, just a bust of Beethoven.”

“Actually, a copy of his death-mask.” I half expected to see a skeleton sitting there, leaning against the front of the piano, its right hand still working out a fingering pattern to some passage in a Chopin etude.

“Wow,” Buzz breathed cautiously into the newly disturbed air, “a private practice room, right in the midst of Lincoln Center!”

“More like a torture chamber, if you ask me” said Leahy-Hu dismissively as she bustled up to check out the popcorn and soda can.

“Same thing.”

Meanwhile, just reaching the stairway to the lower level, D'Arcy heard the shots and dashed down the steps, two at a time. He was afraid of what he, too, might find.

- - - - - - -
to be continued...

= = = = = = =

The Lost Chord, a Music Appreciation Thriller, is a full-length novel written by Dick Strawser and is a musical parody of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. It is being serialized on this blog: watch for the next segment on Thursday, July 29th.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Lost Chord: Installment 10

...continued from the previous installment of "The Lost Chord," a music appreciation thriller and parody of Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" - as the villain was getting ready to implement the next of his dastardly deeds, the most recently discovered clue on the severed ear was apparently going to lead our hero deep into the bowels of Lincoln Center...

= = = = = = =

The lobby at the Met had gradually filtered itself down to a handful of people, mostly ushers and a few disgruntled late-comers who were now going to miss the opening act of The Barber of Seville. It didn't look like we were going to get to see it, either, now. The hunt was on.

The hunt for what was the issue.

Down the steps into the Concourse, traffic was also very light and no one took notice of a gray-haired professor and a young 20-something student seemingly being led away by two security agents and a short person in a light brown but otherwise nondescript uniform.

Things were changing rapidly with all the new construction and while they tried to minimize the inconvenience to the different performing groups and their patrons, confusion was not unexpected. There were signs everywhere pointing people toward the different parking lots and entryways. But I noticed none of them were pointing in the direction we were heading. Back – waaaay back – into the dim distance that seemed to go on for ever, we faced an infinity of perspective, a black void that seemed to advance ahead of us as long as we continued to walk.

“Heigh ho, heigh ho” slowly morphed into something accompanied by the clanging anvil rhythms of Wagner's Nibelungs slaving away in their underground factory. The result was not pretty.

“Shouldn't we be walking backwards?” Buzz asked, explaining if the rubric was Cancer eat plenis and crab canons went in reverse, we might be missing something, possibly another clue that we could only see behind us.

“Can you get him to shut up, professor?”

“Buzz,” I said to him, half-seriously, “why don't you walk backwards – or at least keep your eyes peeled for any clues behind us.” Night-vision goggles would have helped, I was going to add, but then I figure no one from LiCPASH or the ICA would have thought to bring them.

We had no sooner closed the first door into the near-darkness of the pod's hallway when Buzz gasped, “OMG, there's one now!”

“One what?” I said, stopping to look back at him.

“I dunno, it's a sign.” Printed in the same style as all the other signs scattered throughout the Lincoln Center Concourse, this one, however, wasn't pointing the way to anything obvious.

“Hmmm,” I said pensively.

Ubi Chrodegang, ibi Expeditus.

“Holy crap, Professor, now what!?” Leahy-Hu had stopped dead in her tracks. Turning to Harmon, she asked indignantly, “is this really an official Lincoln Center sign, Chief?”

“It looks like them, but it doesn't have any arrows on it.” He looked around but could see nothing else in the dimness.

“So what does this mean? Anything even remotely helpful?”

Where there's Chrodegang... there is Expeditus. Let's see – Chrodegang was an 8th Century saint who brought the new musical system known as Gregorian Chant to the Franks when he was the Bishop of Metz.”

“Ah yes,” said Buzz with a sagacity beyond his years. “Now, there's a team that should be playing in the World Series tonight...”

Chief Harmon ground his foot into the concrete floor. I knew it... Trouble...

“No, we're not talking baseball, here, but he is also famous for the 'Rule of Chrodegang,' which was a series of canons about the life of the clergy...”

“Again with the canons,” huffed Leahy-Hu.

“In addition to musical canons – glorified imitation beyond the level of a mere 'round' like 'Row, Row, Row your boat' – canon can also refer to a body of work, like the Western Canon of great literary masterpieces. In this case, canons refer to rules in the early Church – or for that matter, in Greek philosophy: Aristotle had 'Five Canons of Rhetoric' for his students to learn the art of effective persuasion, for instance.”

“So we're under the Met and he was the Bishop of Metz, but otherwise I fail to see any further connection.” She was not going to be easily persuaded.

“More important, I think, is the sense of his canons as the accepted principles or rules of his order. Perhaps not specifically: if these signs were posted by our suspect, he might be referring to the musical rules that govern the writing or realizing of canons – I mean, as in the musical procedure. Then, too, Bishop Chrodegang was canonized and became a saint, so... he could mean it in any number of possibilities.

“Then, too, “ I continued, “Metz is the place usually considered where the first musical notation was... well, for lack of a better term, invented around 800 – a series of neumes without reference to even a one-line staff.”

“Whatever... Then who or what is 'ibi Expeditus'? Something that must be expedited? Like this investigation, if you wouldn't mind?” She stood there in a way I could only express as “arms akimbo.”

“It says here,” Buzz pointed to his cell-phone, “that Expeditus was also a saint, an Armenian-born martyr who is the patron saint of procrastinators – ah, that would be me! – and also...”

“...Of emergencies and solutions, if I remember correctly.” I glanced down at his phone: he had been googling, again. Amazing, the stuff you could do with a phone. Amazing, also, that a phone would receive signal this deep inside the Lincoln Center concourse.

“I love the story about a Paris convent receiving a box with a statue of him and his relics marked SPEDITIO, the Latin equivalent of 'Speedy Delivery,' but since there was no name to identify who the saint was, they called him Expeditus. Charming story and yet people pray to him all the time to find solutions to intricate problems...”

“Perhaps we should offer him such a prayer as we speak – or rather continue to procrastinate? What the hell does any of this have to do with the ancient wisdom our alleged suspect is hoping you, professor, will procure for him?”

Chief Harmon knew better than to speak up but he hesitantly suggested we continue in our original direction and talk along the way.

“What makes you so sure it's 'ancient wisdom' this character seeks, Director Hu?” I was curious for her take on this. “Lincoln Center is not exactly an ancient building likely to hide a treasure trove of ancient artifacts that will open up mysteries of the past.” True, much of what was presented here was old - often really old - because that was the nature of concert halls and opera houses. The building itself didn't have to be old to house old artifacts.

“What have our clues referenced so far? Bach and Dufay and now an 8th Century saint. We've been talking about canons, for God's sake! All in Latin! What does that tell you?”

“We're going back in time?” Buzz tried to sound helpful.

Perhaps I should've left him to fend for himself on the plaza which may well be the first time this evening Leahy-Hu would have agreed with me.

“Canons as riddles. Canons as rules.” I almost stopped in my tracks, such as they were.

“Our alleged suspect is either a stickler for the rules or is upset about people who don't follow them.” Not the world's most insightful epiphany but I thought it was worth throwing out there.

“Possibly both, I'd think,” Buzz said after he bumped into me, still walking mostly backward and unaware I had stopped. “Rules about music but also rules about how to live – I mean, considering that Bishop from Metz guy. Did Robertson's lifestyle have anything that might make him some enemies among his more rigorously minded colleagues? I mean other than being fabulously rich, extremely successful and highly respected?”

“Well, he was something of a maximal constructionist frequently reviled by the minimal neo-tonalists, I guess, given the musical politics of today's style police...”

“Hmm, yeah, kind of a long shot, there...” Buzz resumed walking, looking over his shoulder to keep an eye out for any additional clues.

Harmon called back to the Security Hub and asked Officer Martineau to check on the status of a room in the Met Pod Level marked 440 – who used it, what might be stored there.

“Thanks, Ond. Oh, and you'd better alert D'Arcy that we're going down there: he might want to know,” Harmon added as he closed his phone. “One of the chief architects in the renovations,” he explained to us.

We trudged on in the semi-darkness, lit only by small feeble lights evenly spaced along the floor like night-lights in a child's bedroom, little pools of light that we walked through, heading toward the next pool for lack of anything else to guide us.

“Music is full of rules – most of them made to be broken, of course. How would music change, otherwise, from era to era or composer to composer? But our clues are all very old rules, starting with Bach and working our way back through the Renaissance to Dufay and then even further with the reference to the beginning of notated music around 1200 years ago.”

“And crabs that walk backwards going backwards in time,” Buzz reminded me. “I half suspect the next clue will be in Greek!”

With that, we came to another door. Chief Harmon used his security badge to gain entrance. With a loud click, the door drifted open into near total blackness.

“Be careful: the steps start almost immediately. It looks like one of the lights is out.” Officer Mobile looked back down the hallway.

“Great,” Harmon said, “an OSHA report just waiting to happen...” He took out a small flashlight and led the way.

The air was cooler, damper and less inviting: clearly the air circulation system didn't reach beyond the door we'd just passed through.

“It smells like air from a different planet,” Buzz whispered.

“Exactly,” I added, “speaking of breaking rules: where would the past century have gone if Schoenberg – in writing his 2nd String Quartet inspired by those very words, Buzz – had been afraid of breaking a few old rules?”

“It probably would've sounded a hell of a lot better,” Harmon huffed under his breath.

Hmmm. Not a fan of 20th Century music, I see. Maybe that's why I felt a certain antipathy for this guy.

“A-ha!” Buzz gasped and reached over to grab my arm before I got too far down the steps. “Look at this, Dr. Dick – another clue?”

There, on the back of the door, was another sign.

προσέξτε πού πατάτε

Leahy-Hu crowded her way back up the steps as Harmon focused his flashlight on this new sign.

“I knew it – Greek!” Buzz said

“Okay, Professor,” Leahy-Hu began petulantly, “have at it...”

“Well, let's see,” as I read it through a few times. “No punctuation and not very effective as poetry...” I missed the haiku-like fibonacci poems we had to deal with in 'The Schoenberg Code.'

Musica reservata was a style of musical composition in the late 16th Century – still old but no longer on a steady time line receding into the dawn of musical history.”

And it was something that Robertson's assistant – or whoever he was – had mentioned to me when he went all evil on me.

(“Surely you are familiar with the mysteries of Musica reservata? There is not much time for you to rescue your friend who is not exactly at the 9th Circle, at least not just yet. Let's say he is currently in the state of limbo.”)

The voice echoed ominously in my ear.

Ear. Damn – it made me think of my friend who was now minus one ear.

Looking at the sign again, I was beginning to think we were in some kind of musical time machine and would find ourselves dealing with a group of defrocked monks mad at the moral decline of the world or something.

Musica reservata was considered too intellectual for most people, designed to be enjoyed by an elite group of cognoscenti – no doubt somewhat like Elliott Carter fans today. One aspect of the style was a direct imitation in the music of the text.”

“You mean like, on the word 'ascend,' the music would go up? And on 'descended,' the musical line would go down...” Leahy-Hu seemed to recall from some distant class-room memory.

“Basically: in more literal forms of tone-painting, you could also do that when talking about sunrise or sunset – or using a galloping rhythm when you're talking about riding a horse or having a trombone snarl if you mention a lion, for instance.” There were dozens of examples but that seemed to get the point across.

Buzz agreed. “Well, it seems our musical line is about to head downwards,” pushing his voice lower and lower as he spoke.

“However,” I continued, “originally, it could also be a very chromatic style that wasn't always written out in the music. Do you remember musica ficta, Buzz?”

“Oh yeah, something about changing a pitch by automatically adding accidentals so you could avoid intervals of the tritone, since they had no real key signatures and no accidentals to change a note other than B-flat, right?”

“Right – by the judicious use of this 'rule' you could actually create some very chromatic-sounding music that no longer sounded as simple as it looked on the written page.”

Pointing at the next line, I mentioned Moro lasso was the title of a famous madrigal by Don Carlo Gesualdo –

I die, alas, in my pain
And she who could give me life,
Alas, kills me and will not help me.
O sorrowful fate,
She who could give me life,
Alas, gives me death.

“Makes you long for the days of the old fa-la-la-la-la...” Buzz tried to get a picture of the sign, but it was too dark to be discernible.

“And should I point out, who is the one who could give whom life but instead gives him death?” Leahy-Hu had a point: is our suspect ready to kill his victim if he doesn't get what he wants, whatever that is, and by not helping him, he will kill Robertson if he hasn't already died? “Is this a woman we're dealing with, our suspect?”

“No, I think it refers to a woman who could help him but either can't or won't.” I didn't want to say it might be her, because I figured Leahy-Hu was already in a bad enough mood.

Leahy-Hu reminded us, “perhaps we should descend,” careful to keep her voice from dropping as if she wanted to avoid giving in to the musical moment. “Dr. Dick, if you're concerned about your tote bag,” she said, noticing I was once again nervously holding it close to my chest, “perhaps we could let Officer Mobile carry it for you?”

“No, no, that won't be necessary, really: I just don't want my... uhm...” – my what?! – “my notes to get all damp and musty.”

Not to mention whatever it was that Robertson had given me years ago and which I had unwittingly brought with me to return to the man – or maniac – who apparently seemed more intent on killing him. And possibly me, as well, once I'd served his purpose.

I tried to change the subject. “As for the line of Greek – 'proséxte poo patáteh' – I'm not sure...”

“You can read it but not translate it?” Leahy-Hu asked, as if this were a sign of weakness, not just a failure of simple logic.

“Wait, I've heard that before,” Harmon said, holding up his hand. “Leo at my favorite diner up on Broadway at 79th always says that to me as I leave his restaurant. I always thought he was wishing me good luck or something, so one day I asked him, I said 'Leo,' I said, 'what's that thing mean about the “potato”?' And you know what he said?”

The ensuing silence apparently signified not one of us had an inkling what Leo might have told him.

“It means 'Watch Your Step'!” Harmon laughed and seemed very proud of himself.

“So,” Buzz thought out loud, “perhaps an admonition to anyone singing 'Moro lasso' to mind their intonation on the descending chromaticism?”

Step-wise motion in a chromatic style like this can be murder on a choir's intonation, true, but that was all part of the challenge of performing and listening to Musica Reservata...”

“Well, no – I think here it probably just means 'Watch Your Step' as an admonition to watch where you're going.”

Even in the dim light, I could see Director Leahy-Hu roll her eyes as she turned and walked further down the steps.

But was he talking about the darkness on the steps or wherever these clues were leading us? Hmmm...

Soon, we reached the bottom of the dark, winding staircase and now found ourselves heading back toward the front of the Met.

“Eww, speaking of which... what's all over the floor?” Buzz scraped his shoe against the bottom step.

“It smells pretty damp down here,” Mobile said. “It's probably just a puddle of condensation.” Harmon swept his flashlight over the landing but all we could see were some large dark spots like stains on the concrete. No one wanted to make a guess.

Chief Harmon spoke to Officer Mobile. “How long have these been down here? The signs, I mean...”

She didn't know: the other day she remember checking through all the security cameras after something indicated some kind of possible breach. But they couldn't find any indication anything had actually happened. She just assumed it was related to the construction and one of the guys had tried the wrong door or something.

“These signs weren't here the last time I was down here, I mean actually physically down here. But that was probably two or three – okay, maybe four weeks ago. But then if I went straight through – just going from one end to the other,” she said, pointing further down the corridor, “no one would have seen anything posted on the wall behind them.”

Noticing Harmon's frown, she added defensively, “It's not like anyone ever comes back here. It's pretty much uncharted territory.”

Meanwhile, I was wracking my brain trying to remember something. “Now carmina chromatica means 'Chromatic Songs' – and Moro lasso certainly is a chromatic song, but I'm also wondering if he doesn't mean the opening of a series of motets by Orlando di Lasso called 'Prophetiae sibyllarum' or the Prophecies of the Sibyls. The opening is a set of block chords but wildly chromatic for the time they were written – around 1600 – I think C Major to G Major then to B Major and C-sharp Minor, E major and F-sharp Minor. That's a pretty wild chord progression for any era before the early 20th Century.”

“A rather extreme way of modulating a tritone away!” Buzz was proud of his epiphany.

“Buzz, can you google that and see what the line of text is? It's about some ancient mysteries and it may shed some much needed light on this.”

“Sibyl,” Harmon sounded as if he was thinking out loud. “Wasn't that the name of a woman who had, like, 27 different personalities or something?”

“Sixteen, I think.” Who was I to tell him he had landed on a famous red-herring which sounded to him just as rational as me talking about a woman who could give someone life but can't, based on two words that just happen to be the title of a 400-year-old madrigal.

“Drat,” Buzz cussed under his breath. “Not enough signal, sorry.” He handed me the phone to show me but when I tried holding it at different angles, my luck wasn't any better.

“Ah well. Musically,” I said, as I absentmindedly pocketed the phone, “it's an example of chords moving to no known harmonic rules of the day. In fact, Edward Lowinsky, back in the 1960s, referred to it as 'triadic atonality,' not that Lassus would have thought of it that way when he wrote these around 1560 or so. Still, it's a handy way for us to describe it.”

Officer Mobile cautiously piped up. “Doesn't the opening line go something like, 'A chromatic song, which you hear to be gracefully performed'?”

“That's it,” I added, as we all turned to her as if to ask how she knew anything about it.

“I heard it a year or so ago – I had a boyfriend then who sang in this early music group and it was on one of their programs. Wild stuff, you're right, for something over four centuries old. It reminded me more of Schoenberg's 'Friede auf Erden' from 1907 than anything written in between.” She looked up at her boss and said defensively, “What... – ?”

It took a while for Chief Harmon's eyebrows to return to normal.

“But there's a pun, there, too,” I added, “because the line can also be translated as 'a chromatic song which has a modulating tenor,' in other words, a line that fluctuates harmonically from one key to another.” I often wondered if there was something hidden in what that 'tenor' might actually be – a quote from something? I wish I'd paid more attention in my Renaissance class, now...

Pointing up ahead where a few more small, dim pools of light indicated another stretch of night-lights had resumed working, I said, “At this point, I suspect we will find our goal half of the distance we'd walked since we'd entered that first door upstairs.”

“Oh, red meat medium well, right.” Buzz was getting the hang of it.

It wasn't exactly the scent of steaks on the grill I was reminded of, though. The smells here were getting more varied but also stronger as we progressed further into what I wished I hadn't described as “the bowels of Lincoln Center.”

- - - - - - -
to be continued...

= = = = = = =
The Lost Chord, a Music Appreciation Thriller, is a serial novel written by Dick Strawser and is a musical parody of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. It is being serialized on this blog: watch for the next segment on Monday, July 26th.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Lost Chord: Installment 9

...continued from the previous installment of "The Lost Chord," a music appreciation thriller and parody of Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" - we met Dr. Iobba Dhabbohdhú, found out about a mysterious pizza delivery one Thanksgiving at the Gilbert N. Sullivan homestead the night Aunt Katie Shaw died, and Dr. Dick discovered why, exactly, he's been brought to New York City, something about a curious object Robertson Sullivan had entrusted to his care years ago, something "they" weren't supposed to find.
= = = = = = =

The question that kept echoing through my mind was “Who is 'they'?” I kept trying to remember if Robertson had told me anything more about the contents of this little box over the years but he had mentioned nothing more about it after those few minutes we'd talked on that cold November morning. Why, then, was I suddenly feeling so afraid? If it would get my friend back to safety, did it really matter?

“Professor?” Leahy-Hu snapped her fingers, trying to get my attention. Apparently I was not only a thousand miles away, I must have turned ashen white. “Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?”

“No. No, I'm fine, really. I think it's all just beginning to sink in and... since I don't know what's going on with all this, I... uh... well, I just feel kind of, you know, like, frustrated and hopeless...” but clearly her squint revealed she wasn't buying whatever it was I was trying to say. And the fact I was hugging my tote bag to my chest probably didn't help my credibility.

At that point, Officer Mobile, who'd been facing Leahy-Hu, stepped up to see the ear more clearly. “Looking at it this way,” she said, pointing to the top of the ear closest to her, “with that last bit directly over the last words of the thing from that Mass – when you turn it around, it reads a little differently.”


She was right. Not that that made any more sense than before. “440,” I said, “could easily refer to the A everyone tunes to.” Realizing there were puzzled expressions all around, I explained, “you know, A-440 which...”

“I know what it means, Professor. What I don't know is what exactly it means – I mean, you know what I mean – what the hell is it doing here?” If I was trying to get her more annoyed, I couldn't be doing a better job of it.

Donna Mobile looked at me and said, “Actually, I think I know. It's a place.”

“A place?” Sounding startled, Leahy-Hu was, no pun intended, all ears. “Where!”

“Almost directly underneath us.” Officer Mobile explained, “you see, the 'PL' stands for Pod-Level, what they were originally calling the basement level beneath the Concourse. Storage pods under each of the Center's main theaters.” Pointing to the west, she said “M would be the Metropolitan Opera's pods. Given that high a number, I suspect it's at the very far end.”

“And we can get there, how? Chief Harmon?”

Harmon looked somewhat perplexed. “With all the new construction going on, I'm not even sure we can get there. It's been years since I've been down there.” As chief of security for Avery Fisher Hall, anything that was part of the Met's real estate was really the Met's Security Chief Nelson Dorma's bailiwick: according to protocol, he should contact Dorma before he gets accused of bureaucratic trespassing.

“Call him. If you will be unable to open it, tell him pronto to get his ass down here.” Leahy-Hu was clearly getting impatient. “Time is what we do not have to waste.”

Buzz looked at the picture of the ear on his phone – I could imagine him setting this as his desk-top default – and said, “You know, boss, I bet if we go so many steps in one direction, at one point we'll probably have to turn and retrace our steps half of the way back.” Pointing to the Latin around the rim of the ear, he seemed unsure how this would work.

I was not the only one whose expression registered a high level of skepticism.

But then Officer Mobile chimed in, “I think he may be right: we'd go all the way to the back of the Met's pods, then down a flight of steps to the next level lower down and from there head back toward the center. I'm not sure how well those hallways are marked since no one hardly ever needs to go down there.”

“Okay, Dorma's given us the go-ahead,” Chief Harmon announced as he put his cell-phone away. “Let's get moving. Professor, you'd better come with me – we don't want you to get lost down there: it's very dark. Last season, Hansel and Gretel were trying to get from the scene shop over to the elevator up to the Met's backstage area and got hopelessly lost after making a wrong turn somewhere. It could've taken days for us to find them if they hadn't been singing at the tops of their lungs.”

I was going to ask why they hadn't used bread crumbs but then figured the rats would have eaten them all. It was not the image I wanted to present to myself before we made our descent.

“Ahem!” Leahy-Hu planted herself squarely in front of Harmon. “You will lead and I will follow.”

She started to head over toward 65th Street but Harmon told her the Concourse level entrance there was closed now. “We'll have to go in directly through the Met.”

Leahy-Hu handed the ear to one of the security officers to be bagged and tagged as evidence.

“Ah, excuse me, before you seal that up, is there...” I tried to figure out why I would ask this but I felt I had to: it might come in handy later on. “For sentimental reasons, is there any way I could have Robertson's ear-cuff, there? I'd like to be able to return it to him – you know, when I see him again.” The implication was that I would not likely see him alive.

Leahy-Hu frowned but nodded her begrudged approval and Officer Sordino gave it a few twists and it popped right off the ear-lobe. He held it up and looked at it, then handed it to me and I, without further ado, slipped it into my pocket.

“Oh, and Professor, rather than drag that tote-bag around,” the Director of Security said, “why don't you just leave that with Officer Sordino? We can return it to you when we come back.” I would say she smiled sweetly but “sweet” did not seem to be part of her emotional vocabulary.

I clutched the bag even more tightly to my chest. “If you wouldn't mind, I'd rather not. And would Buzz be able to come along with us? It would make me feel a lot more comfortable, rather than just leaving him here.”

She waved her hand dismissively at me as if this would be yet another ridiculous burden.

“And Officer Mobile, you'd better come, too,” Harmon called back to her. If Buzz had enjoyed the idea of being able to tag along on this adventure, he was even doubly so, now: Officer Mobile was definitely someone he would no doubt consider “hawt.”

With Harmon in front and Leahy-Hu behind him, I could almost imagine the five of us breaking out into a chorus of “Heigh Ho! Heigh Ho!” as we hurried off toward the Met lobby, then taking the stairs down deep into the Concourse level below.

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

It had taken them longer than expected, Claire von Güllendorf's cab getting stuck in traffic on West End Avenue as the result of an accident near their turn at W. 61st Street. But it gave her ample opportunity to engage in one of her favorite forms of entertainment: the flashback.

Claire, of course, was just one of Tr'iTone's many disguises, like Dr. Dhabbohdhú and the homeless man in the blue bandanna. He likened himself to a musical motive – a few recognizable notes or intervals, perhaps a rhythm or even more vaguely, a musical gesture – capable of being changed in so many ways it would be almost unrecognizable to the untrained ear. Not so much the untrained ear, as his teachers had observed, just an inattentive one. Anyone with half a brain (regardless of being the right brain or the left brain) could figure out how to listen but sometimes it was such an automatic function, most people rarely thought about it and so, bombarded with so many things within earshot, they sometimes forgot to listen at all and in fact rarely even heard, just 'sensed' it without the slightest comprehension. When asked what they heard later, they would often shrug their shoulders since none of it actually registered in their conscious mind, literally in one ear and out the other.

That doesn't mean the brain hadn't processed it: the brain was just being lazy in bringing any of it to the foreground. Ear-training, of course, was one way a musician could improve the ear-brain continuum if it were ever carried beyond the primary introductory skills usually taught in undergraduate music programs.

But people would go to the gym several times a week to work out, working hard at turning a flaccid body into a marvel of musculature with a dedication bordering on the obsessive: but sit and listen to a CD and work on their ears to improve the functioning of their brain, to make it more interesting when they went to a concert? You've got to be kidding, right?

Even listening to their favorite music – on whatever form of technology they might choose – for most people, “listening” was not the appropriate description. It had become simply “hearing,” the passive reaction to filling of a vacuum with random sounds, the aural equivalent of leaving a light on in an otherwise darkened room to give them a sense of comfort from the void. The TV was left on in the background so they didn't feel they were alone, even if they weren't watching it. People listened to the radio in the car so a trip did not become so boring without something to occupy themselves. Shouting back at the idiot on that call-in program, better than just disengaging the brain with pleasant sounds, was what people today liked to call “interactive.”

Stuck in traffic, Claire's cabby had just turned the radio up so there was something to kill the silence. How nice it had been that Akhmed – his last name was unreadable on the badge for lack of a little cleaning – had considered the old woman in his back seat, picked up just outside Lincoln Center. After all, she would probably prefer to listen to classical music even if the station he had chosen was playing souped-up movie themes arranged in a grand orchestral style of little redeeming value beyond a purely momentary sense of entertainment. It made all the right attempts at imitation but without absorbing anything deeper, something no one thought to liken to fast-food's fat content. In its original context, this music probably heightened the experience of the visual, special effects rendered on a huge screen through the tricks of a computer that amazed the eye and cajoled the mind into thinking it was something “awesome.” How I hate that over-used word! But really it was, when you compared it to a parent with a parent's responsibilities and devotion, little more than a baby-sitter who was spending a few hours (and for money, at that) just to see your brain didn't get into any trouble.

She rapped on the divider with her cane and asked as discreetly as possible if he wouldn't mind turning that down a notch or two. He did.

After a discreet delay, Claire took Sullivan's cell-phone out and sent the last caller a very simple text message: “SORRY 4 DELAY. BUSY DAY. WILL EXPLAIN. C U SOON. WHY NOT INVITE DR. D TO JOIN US? I TRUST HIM. DO U HAVE HIS #?” Then he typed it in anyway.

In a few minutes, another cell-phone began to vibrate. Claire pulled it out of her bag and saw an in-coming call from LauraLynn Sullivan. Very prompt to her brother's excellent suggestion.

“Great news, Dr. Dhobbohdú – I just heard from Robertson. He's even learned to text! He also wants to know if you would be able to join us?”

“That IS great news, Dr. Sullivan,” Claire replied in the deep mellifluous whisper of the composer-psychologist. “It's also rather short notice: I was just finishing up having an old friend over for dinner” – what wine would go well with Sullivan? – “but he's just about to leave. I think I could make it. I'm not far away.”

“That would be great.” And with that, she said she'd alert the security guard that he would be expected and then gave him directions to find the pod's main door.

But I already know that, my sweet. “Excellent,” he whispered, hoping not to be overheard by the cabby. “I'll say good-bye here and be on my way very shortly.”

Once they finally got to their destination and Akhmed apologized for it taking so long – “who would expect...” he said, letting it trail off into the obvious as he helped her extricate her large frame from the back seat of his cab – she replied very calmly, “Yes, no one can everything expect, ja? In fact, some people expect nothing at all!” and she turned her head quizzically toward him, slipping him a $50 bill. “Keep changing, if you please, young man.”

Akhmed was easily amused by these foreigners who so effortlessly mangled the language.

And then she hobbled into the entrance of Lincoln Center's concourse, waving her cane familiarly at Tex, sitting as comfortably as he could in his booth, the glow of its TV monitor reflecting across his face. Waiting for the first pitch to begin what he was sure would be the last game of the series, he didn't even notice that she had turned left down the hallway, away from the parking area.

People's inattentiveness: it reminded Dhobbohdú of one of his many great coups these past few days. He had driven a limousine he had rented and wore the chauffeur's uniform he had recently added to his closetful of disguises, calling himself Thar Jom el-Achir, knowing no one would understand he was calling himself “Blood Vengeance, Day of Judgment” in Arabic. Going by just Thar for short, he had considered even putting that on his passport since he was convinced any of the agents in airport security would never even notice. If you didn't look Arabic or weren't on somebody's little list – and none of them be missed – you'd have to be named “Evil-doer K. Suicidebomber” to be thrown off a plane at most American airports until something slipped through and caused something.

Just as artfully as he'd tricked Dr. Dick into driving all the way from Pennsylvania to deliver the missing memento into his hands, Tr'iTone had been able to call Robertson Sullivan to take him up to 155th Street for a special Tuesday morning board meeting at the American Academy of Arts and Letters where he was nearing the end of his term as a Vice-President for Music. He easily arranged to pick him up at his apartment at The Dakota by 7:30, pulling up unceremoniously to the entranceway on W. 73rd Street (not the famous elaborate port cochere on W. 72nd Street where John Lennon had been gunned down almost thirty years ago). With few people on the street to notice (much less care), he managed to help him into the back seat, sticking him in the hand almost imperceptibly with a potent sedative that had him sound asleep before he even pulled out onto Central Park West.

Instead of driving up to the Academy's opulent headquarters at Audubon Place, he merely turned around the block and took him back to his own, somewhat humbler abode on W. 69th Street. The hard part, he figured, was going to be finding a place to park the limo but as luck would have it – a good day for The Day of Judgment – there was a space just big enough right in front of his brownstone. No one would notice, this early in the morning, a big hulking chauffeur carrying a sleeping middle-aged man into the street-level entrance of his ground floor. To any normal, passive observer at that hour, it would have seemed not the start of a new day but the end of this old guy's long night in which he had simply over-extended himself by staying out way too late, passing out with the rising of the sun.

Locked safely in the spare bedroom at the back of what could be a separate apartment, Sullivan should sleep for a good hour or so before waking up to realize this was not the American Academy's board-room. But by that time, Tr'iTone would have returned the limousine to the rental agency and then traded in his disguise as Thar Jom el-Achir for something... well, shall we day “even more sinister”? Even in the memory, Tr'iTone could barely manage to stifle his evil laugh.

One Sullivan down and one Sullivan to go.

Tr'iTone approached the door of the Met's underground storage area of the concourse and looked cautiously around, figuring the poor security guard was too intent on the game to notice anything on the security monitors. If he did, he would just assume the little old lady with the cane was lost, then come and get her. No sense sounding the alarm for that. The lighting here was very dim but not far away was an even dimmer corner where he could “modulate” to his new disguise.

He had gotten the idea from a television commercial where a woman, getting up from her boudoir dressed like Marie Antoinette, walked through the house shedding, era by era, one costume after another until she had evolved into a slinky modern dress and appropriate hairstyle by the time she reached her front door – what exactly this had to do with bladder control, he had no idea but perhaps women could relate to it. For him, it meant shedding one disguise after another as he went through what would become in short order a “crime scene.” By the time the police would have caught up with him, all they would find would be a discarded costume like the shed skin of one character after another.

Underneath the baggy pants and sweatshirt of the homeless man in the blue bandanna, Tr'iTone had on the elegant dress and fur coat of the old German woman, her wig, hat and veil tucked tightly into a fanny pack. Now it was time he shed himself of Claire von Güllendorf – and how convenient: not only was there a dark corner just out of view of the security camera but there was also an old covered trash bin. It would take them hours before they would find Old Claire's remains.

After a few discreet zips, he stepped out of her black sequined gown to reveal himself once again as Dr. Iobba Dhabbohdhú, elegantly dressed in the same gray suit LauraLynn had seen him in earlier, at their afternoon tea. Stuffing the black fox fur – pity to lose it like this – and the hat with its fake silver locks into the trash bin, he stepped forward and prepared for the next step.

He took out his cell-phone and dialed in LauraLynn's number. “It was good you gave me the directions. When I got here, the security guard wasn't in his booth. Oh, I imagine either in the men's room or out helping some little old lady who'd gotten lost. It happens. But I am here at the door to Niebelheim, awaiting entrance. Fine, thank you.”

And now it was time.

- - - - - - -
to be continued...

= = = = = = =
The Lost Chord, a Music Appreciation Thriller, is a serial novel written by Dick Strawser and is a musical parody of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. It is being serialized on this blog: watch for the next segment on Thursday, July 22nd.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Parody: Ur Doin' It Right

Okay, so I saw a friend of mine on Facebook found this "I Write Like" analyzer which informed her she wrote like (take 1) David Foster Wallace, (take 2) Stephen King and (take 3) Arthur C. Clarke.

So I had to try it and plugged in a short excerpt with dialog from the latest installment of "The Lost Chord," my music appreciation thriller parody of Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol."

And it told me...

I write like
Dan Brown
I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


At the New York Times' "PaperCuts Blog," blogger Jennifer Schuessler found out she writes like Edgar Allan Poe. But then a colleague plugged in an excerpt from Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" and was told he writes like Arthur Conan Doyle.

(If you're curious, I typed in an excerpt from "The Lost Symbol" and was told that Dan Brown writes like Dan Brown.)

Anyway, given the premise of "The Lost Chord," I am perfectly satisfied with this result!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Lost Chord: Installment 8

...continued from the previous installment of "The Lost Chord," a music appreciation thriller - Dr. Dick, Buzz, Yoda Leahy-Hu & Chief Phil Harmon stand in the center of the Lincoln Center plaza wondering why the ear had been left on the rim of  the fountain and what significance its location might have had in the plot (such as it was)...
- - - - - - - - -

If only he'd told me what was bothering him.”

LauraLynn had been surprised to receive that first phone call in the early afternoon, somebody claiming to be a colleague of Robertson's but one she'd never heard him mention before. It wasn't like her brother to keep secrets from her, especially knowing how interested she was in talking to composers. She had no idea why all the secrecy but the guy had indicated there was some kind of special project they were working on so perhaps, in time, the news would all come out.

He introduced himself very politely as Dr. Iobba Dhabbohdhú – it sounded vaguely East African to her but his accent was less easily identified – all sounding very reassuring. He said he was a composer and Robertson had given him her number since he thought she might like to interview him. Once they had established that nothing was wrong, at least on the surface, he proceeded to explain the nature of his call. And with that, she quickly agreed to meet him at his brownstone on West 69th Street.

Not far from the lab – how convenient. “I can be there in maybe fifteen, twenty minutes,” she told him. “Let me close up a few things, here.”

It seemed more like ten minutes later when she found herself standing nearly breathless at the top of a tall flight of steps, waiting at the front door of a very imposing four-story gray-colored brownstone. Obviously not very wheelchair accessible. The door opened and a very imposing dark-skinned man stood there, dressed in a silver-gray suit and what was clearly a black wig that made him resemble a young James Brown, but one broad-shouldered enough to practically fill the doorway.

“Come in, Dr. Sullivan.” He made polite conversation while she followed him up another flight of steps to a sitting room on the second floor where there were two fine Victorian chairs – ornate rosewood with deep red plush upholstery – placed to look out the bay window overlooking the quiet street below. A scraggly tree, barely more than a sapling and mostly devoid of its leaves this early in November, was unable to block the view of his neighbors across the street. Looking toward the right, you could almost see Broadway.

On the little accent table between them – again, a fine old Victorian piece, possibly Thomas Brooks, around 1860 or so, marble-topped and cut like one her mother had and referred to as a “turtle” table – someone had carefully placed fine china cups of a pale blue and gold-rimmed pattern with a delicate matching pot. As he poured the steaming tea, redolent of blackberries (her favorite), he mentioned how Robertson always liked to begin their visits with a cup of tea which he preferred to drink quickly while it was still very hot. He handed her her cup and then put a little sugar in his own.

“Your brother said you always drank yours black,” Dr. Dhabbohdhú added deferentially.

“Yes, and how he ever drank his so fast without scalding himself, I could never understand.”

He motioned for her to sit down. Standing expectantly by the fireplace, she had just noticed a degree from Cambridge University and asked him about it: was that where he had studied psychology?

As he sat down, carefully positioning his bulky frame in the seemingly delicate chair, he explained he'd taken several courses in psychology from Oxford after earning a degree in music from Cambridge, then going back for his doctorate in composition – a conflict between rival polarities that could have intriguing psychological implications, he chuckled. He had studied composition mostly with Alexander Goehr until the man retired in 1999. Psychology, he had determined, would be something that would always interest him, but a glint in his eye implied you can imagine I didn't buy this house with my royalties. What exactly did was left unsaid.

She tried to hide her knowing smile as she sipped her still piping hot tea. Most composers wouldn't have been able to afford these chairs on their royalties.

She often wondered what it was that drove people to want to compose if they could've found something more lucrative. After all, look at Robertson, sidestepping a limiting career in music to find himself chairman of Lincoln Center. Of course, a tidy family fortune helped. Impressive, though, that Dhabbohdhú had studied with Alexander Goehr: Robertson had always liked his music and wished he could have studied with him but he never left the United States – too many great composers here, he argued, but missing out on the change of venue, as he put it, always made him wistful.

Though their last meeting was intended only to be shop talk about some new creative project they were collaborating on – this intrigued her, no end, of course – one topic had led to another but something, Dhabbohdhú felt, was beginning to surface that intrigued the would-be psychologist side of him. “It seems difficult for him to deal with certain things – what, I'm not really sure – because there is a strong sense of guilt about... well, it's not difficult to understand why, after he told me the story of your Aunt Katie's death.”

She took a deep breath. It was not something she imagined her brother discussing with someone else: this was not the direction she felt the conversation would take and she flinched. Right. We both do. I watched her die and couldn't do anything to help her: it will be seven years ago this Thanksgiving.

“As I understand it, there was an intruder that evening, a man who forced his way into your home – or rather, the family homestead – demanding something he knew your brother had.”


“After a skirmish, the intruder tried to escape but Robertson said he shot him. Dead?”

“That is true.” It was resurfacing in front of her all too vividly when this man showed up delivering a pizza they had not ordered. I mean, who orders a pizza on Thanksgiving night? She shivered at the memory as she often did when it came back to her.

“He was looking for something, Robertson mentioned: do you remember? It would help greatly if...”

“No, I had no idea what he wanted, neither of us did. It sounded absurd and I was thinking 'Great, he's got the wrong house; maybe he should try the Jenkins' further down the road,' but...”

“But he told me he did know, in fact understood perfectly what the man was raving about. His guilt stems from the belief if he had just handed it over to this... this man, just as he asked, Katie Shaw might still be alive today.” Dhabbohdhú took a long sip of his tea while he let this sink in.

It's true Robertson felt directly responsible for her death, bizarre as it was, but with all the other circumstances – his running off after the intruder not knowing his aunt had been wounded – no one would have been able to help her, not in time.

Dhabbohdhú continued, looking up cautiously into Laura's widening eyes.

“Had he ever mentioned anything to you about a - how should I say? - a treasure he guarded, something about great mysteries and ancient wisdom?”

She practically convulsed. “What the hell are you talking about?” Then she demurely collected herself, “I'm sorry, that just sort of popped out. It sounds pretty far fetched, even considering Robertson's often amusing sense of free-range creativity.”

“Ah.” He paused. “But if I tell you what he told me yesterday, you might, perhaps, know something of what is, shall we say, behind it.” He reached over to the tea pot. “More tea? I think it should have cooled off a bit, by now.”

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

Looking down at her, I realized Director Leahy-Hu continued to wave the ear toward my face, as if I would suddenly blurt out all the answers she was looking for.

“Wait a minute. There is something else. Hold it still.”

“What! What do you see?” Leahy-Hu yanked the ear down so she could look at it. Harmon also leaned forward so he could see better. Now I couldn't see it at all.

Harmon was kind enough to grab one side of the base and hold it still for me.

“Yes, that's what I thought. Another tattoo, it looks like.”

Buzz looked over my shoulder and took a picture of it with his cell phone.

“Young man,” Leahy-Hu shouted indignantly as she tucked an errant wisp of hair behind an ear with her free hand, “do not – I repeat, NOT – post that on the internet!”

Buzz shrank back, probably thinking about what it must have been like to grow up in a Catholic school.

“It's very tiny. Buzz, can you enlarge that part of the photo so we can see it better?”

A few beeps later and Buzz held out the phone where we could read quite clearly


“Something else that doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense, here...” Leahy-Hu was not amused and stomped her foot down so hard on the ground, I half expected to see chips of gray and white granite flying left and right from the attack.

“So far, Professor,” she said, massaging her foot with one hand while holding the ear testily in front of me with the other, “we have clues to go on but nothing to explain what those clues mean. You have been 'invited' to come to New York to give a pre-concert talk for a concert that didn't exist and now you've been 'invited,' somehow, to become a part of this unfolding mystery.”

She waved the ear about as if to indicate the whole of Lincoln Center. “I hold in front of you the ear of a friend of yours which you were able to identify because of the silver band on it, one that is inscribed with the words Recte et Retro. Around the lobe of the ear, from the bottom all the way around the top, is tattooed the Latin phrase...” and here she looked at the ear to read it directly, “Cancer eat plenis et redeat medius which you say is found in a famous mass by Guillaume Dufay. Then there's Quaerendo invenietis which you say is a rubric Bach used in his 'Musical Offering.' And now this weird looking thing – 0hh-7dW - which doesn't seem to make even that much sense... Not a hell of a lot to go on, don't you think, Professor?”

I shrugged my shoulders sheepishly, not having any idea how to help her find my friend. Time was clearly moving ahead more recte than retro.

“There is one thing, professor, you have not yet mentioned so far tonight. Given all these clues are musical clues and that you are a musician, I gather, you haven't told me that Robertson Sullivan, Chairman of Lincoln Center, is more than a businessman and philanthropist as we stand here in the middle of the Robertson and LauraLynn Sullivan Plaza of Lincoln Center. You haven't mentioned yet that Robertson Sullivan is also...” and here she paused, as if for effect.

“...a composer.”

I hadn't?

“And I'm curious as to why that would be?” Director Leahy-Hu cocked her head quizzically at me and her beady little eyes reflected the dim light of the plaza with a malevolent twinkle.

“It hadn't occurred to me it would be necessary. I mean, yes, he's a pianist and a composer, taught theory, ear-training and composition at the college level – even right here at Juilliard before he abandoned the idea of composing, then deciding to go into arts administration instead. He also has a very scientific mind” – not to mention a very hot looking, scientific sister – “that goes far beyond ones typical musical training. He has written scholarly articles for numerous publications ranging from architecture to zoology. He's more than just a music-lover with a family fortune. I thought that was obvious. In fact, if you're with security division of the International Composers Alliance, I had assumed that much was understood.” Why, then, are you here?!

“What significance could there be in Sullivan's being... a composer?” Her voice sounded oily and persuasive, lacking all pretense to sounding threatening.

“Are you thinking this is more than just a case of some lunatic kidnapping him for ransom?”

“I'm thinking, given the level of academicism in these clues and your own obtuseness, Professor, that this lunatic you keep referring to is probably related in some musical way to Robertson Sullivan. Is it possible that someone feels a composer” – she sneered when she used the word – “is not stable enough to run Lincoln Center in these difficult times, both economically and artistically? Someone who might not want to trust... a composer” – again with the sneer – “in such a position of power?”

It began dawning on me why I had taken an instant dislike to this person.

“I don't expect to find a ransom note buried inside this ear,” she continued. “Whatever it is he wants, he has brought you here to find it for him. Because whatever it is or however you're going to find it, Robertson Sullivan told him you know what it is. Am I making myself a little bit clearer, Professor?”

The light glinted off the ear's silver band which brought back a memory that had not occurred to me for some time until this morning's phone call. It was as if flood-lights swept the plaza and the dancing waters of the fountain started spelling it out. Now I knew why I had been summoned to Lincoln Center.

- - - - - - -

Tr'iTone heard the buzzing of the vibrations coming from the cell-phone he was carrying in the purse he clutched tightly in his lap – well, the purse that was part of his disguise as the little old German lady, Claire von Güllendorf. He glanced at it furtively as the cab rounded the corner onto West End Avenue. A call from LauraLynn Sullivan, as expected.

“Rob, it's me again,” she said almost conspiratorially. “Where are you?! I have to talk to you about my conversation with your friend, Dr. Dhabbohdhú. I'm at the lab. Don't forget, Barber of Seville starts at 8. Bye.”

There will be time to deal with this soon enough, he figured, once he was on his way. Having Robertson's cell-phone has proved to be quite useful today. And how convenient, he chuckled to himself, when she admitted without his even having to pry while they sat there sipping tea looking out his bay window that afternoon, that all her research – and all its back-up – is contained within the lab, her so-called secret lab (MyPod, indeed).

- - - - - - -

It had been many years ago, not long after I had moved to New York City. I had gone out for a quick walk around the neighborhood and a bit of breakfast at the diner a few blocks further down Broadway. It was a damp November day, the kind that left you chilled from the inside out. Not really paying attention as I got back to my apartment building, I barely noticed someone standing there in what passed for a lobby. When he turned to see who'd just come in the front door, I almost didn't recognize my old friend Robertson Sullivan perched against the remains of a couch.

“Wow, Rob” I said, “what brings you down from Boston so early this morning?”

“I'm in town on some business, as it happens, so I only have a little time. I couldn't get this close to you and not stop by to at least say hello.”

“Well, hello. You could have called, but it's always good to see you.” It's not like Boston was that far away but we still saw each other only rarely. I had figured, with him teaching there and me being a free-lance starving musician here – do the math – we were well on our way to drifting apart and eventually ceasing to be friends any more.

“I wanted to ask you a favor – not one I could ask you over the phone, either.”

His mysterious approach was piquing my interest even more: something about a new composition of his? I rather doubted he was asking me about what I was composing these days.

“You're not going to ask me to babysit your cat again, are you?” Last summer, when I still lived in Connecticut, he had dropped off his black cat Reficul – appropriately, Lucifer spelled backwards – who had turned out to be more than a handful to deal with. “I have two cats of my own, now, and I doubt even together they could probably contain Refi's destructive personality,” I added jokingly. Actually, my cats would probably spend the entire visit eying him from the top of a closet shelf but still managing to learn by observation the darker secrets of the feline arts.

“No, no, nothing like that,” he laughed, though he did apologize once again for all the damage Refi had done to my piano, not that it mattered much. He had started attacking the legs of it as if he were possessed, turning the old Chickering grand into a vintage scratching post that was hard to explain when I finally sold the thing before I moved, downsizing to a more manageable upright.

Instead, he wanted me to keep a little something for him, at least temporarily. It was too valuable for him to keep at home and not at all safe to hide it in his office.

“But, Robertson, I live in New York City,” I said, waving my arms around as if to encompass the neighborhood, “in a building that's hardly secure. Not exactly the place I'd want to hide something valuable. I half expect to come back some evening and find they've stolen everything but the piano.”

He laughed. “I doubt they would think to steal this: it really is rather unassuming. They wouldn't think to look for it at your place, and besides – someone would probably steal it only if they knew what it was.”


He held out a small gray, very unassuming-looking box.

He was right about one thing: it didn't look very impressive. But when he handed it to me, it felt unexpectedly heavy. Almost tempted to shake it like a child at Christmastime, I looked at him quizzically as we got into the elevator and went up to my apartment.

At first I was thinking it was going to be something he was trying to hide from his ex-wife, even though it'd been a year since the divorce was finalized. Messy, too. Lucy Firestone had proven to be the too imperfect match for him I had suspected, though I could hardly tell him that when he surprised me with his “good news” just a few weeks before the wedding. It really hadn't made a lot of sense to me. Then, too, I rather doubted she particularly enjoyed his naming the cat after her, in a convoluted sort of way – true, she wasn't exactly the brightest crayon in the box, but hey...

“No, nothing like that. It's something I've been entrusted with by my teacher who had been given it by his teacher and so on, going back several generations.”

Looking at it, I was trying to imagine what kind of memento it could have been, but he quickly steered the conversation in another direction.

“It is not the sort of thing I would want getting into the wrong hands, you know – not that it's dangerous by itself. I need to, ah... keep it separate from something else. You know, like together it would be... oh, like reaching a critical mass, maybe. Just don't open it and make sure it stays safely hidden. I'll let you know when I'd want to have it back. But until then, if you can do that, I would be eternally grateful.”

And with that, the conversation ended. When the elevator door opened on the 9th floor just outside my apartment, I invited him in but he said he really had to be going. He seemed relieved of a great burden as the doors creaked shut behind me but I was relieved of a similar burden, thinking, as messy as my apartment was, did I really want a man as fastidious as Robertson Sullivan seeing how I lived? Of course, he may have changed his mind and taken the little gray box back right there but I figured what kind of hardship would it be, keeping it for him for a few years or so, as long as I didn't lose it.

Eventually, I put it in a small plain gift-box along with Robertson's name and address in case anything should happen to me before he would ask to have it returned. The only time I thought about it was when I would get ready to move and then only to make sure I hadn't lost it in the ritual of packing and unpacking.

So there was a sense of relief when Robertson's assistant – or at least the man I had believed was who he'd said he was – asked me about some small package Robertson had entrusted to me almost half our lives ago: would I bring whatever it was along with me?

“Of course: I know right where it is. Yes,” I added by way of confirmation, looking in what I called my junk drawer, “it's right here. Tell him I'd be glad to give it back to him tonight.”

“Excellent. I'm sure he'll be very pleased.” And with that he wished me a good trip and hung up the phone. I placed the little gift bag in my tote-bag and hung it over the garage door, ready to take it with me when I'd leave.

But only now did I realize that was why I was in New York City – not to do a pre-concert talk, not even to find some mysterious clues as Director Leahy-Hu seemed convinced, but to turn Robertson's little memento over to the wrong hands.

- - - - - - -
To be continued...

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The Lost Chord, a Music Appreciation Thriller, is a novel written by Dick Strawser and is a musical parody of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. It is being serialized on this blog: watch for the next installment on Monday, July 19th.