(If you've only just arrived and have no clue what's going on, you might find it easier to start with the introductory post, here.)
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
CHAPTER SIX begins...
The ambulance finally arrived after following Hobson's path through the still-falling, still-drifting snow but quickly got the cabby onto a gurney and off to the hospital. Unfortunately, he didn't regain consciousness but given the possibility of shock and hypothermia, the emergency medics thought his condition was worsening. The question, however, still remained what he meant by the two words he did manage to get out: "big" and "violin." Nor could the medics answer what had caused him to go into shock.
Though it technically wasn't a crime, Constable Drumm, being the good bureaucrat, felt he needed more information for the accident report. Obviously, in addition to medical issues, there would be insurance forms and all.
"What do you think happened to his fare? Had he dropped her off? Or," Drumm wondered, "had the crash happen before?"
Drumm checked with the other guests and servants but nobody recognized the name he had been given: some woman named Mumwidge.
"If she'd left from Umberton," Sidney said, "you might try the Public Wing."
Vector explained with considerable reserve that a private event was being held there and many involved were staying nearby at Umberton.
Had she made it safely to the house or did she abandon the cab after the accident, possibly also in shock? Was it possible she was still out there, lost somewhere in the snow?
As other guests filtered back into the house and Vector begrudgingly oversaw the clean-up of the mess in the foyer (again), Constable Drumm went over to the door Vector indicated but found it locked. He knocked vigorously on the door but when no one bothered to respond, he felt uncomfortable about maybe breaking it down.
Drumm heard loud music off in the distance and a lot of yelling.
"Open up in the name of the law!"
Eventually a shabbily dressed man opened the door, peering through with obvious disdain.
"We rented this place for our event, dude, so your lords and ladies should take it up with the Trust, okay?"
"That's Constable Dude to you, bub," Drumm snarled. "Someone named Mumwidge – she here?"
"Yeah, she's one of ours – hasn't shown up yet either, the stupid cow."
"There's been an accident – she may be missing."
Constable Drumm disappeared into the house's Public Wing, after handing him a telegram, and the Great Hall then quickly cleared out, especially once Sidney and Lisa headed back downstairs after mopping up the snow.
Cathie Raighast, glad the commotion has died down, wandered into the empty hall and took a seat next to the fireplace.
"It feels so nice here," she told herself, "and I've been so lucky, everybody so wonderful, I'll really hate to leave." She looked around and smiled meekly, pulling her shawl closer over her shoulders.
After leaving Dr. Kerr's room, Cathie decided the stairs would be too much, but not wanting to trouble anyone for help, she walked down the hallway to take Frieda's elevator to the ground floor. It was unfortunate that she arrived too late, once the ambulance had left, but at least she knew everything was okay.
She liked sitting alone in this vast space and watching everything go by, the great activity of the house swirling past. A guest (an insignificant one), she knew how easily she could be ignored. Occasionally, a well-meaning servant may notice but they'd gotten used to her presence after realizing she liked to be left alone.
It was a pleasant change from her room, which was spacious and comfortable, but here she could observe everything going on. Like many older ladies with nothing to do, observing was something she enjoyed.
"I'll not sit here much longer," she thought, quietly scanning around the room. "Besides, dinner will be ready soon – at 8:00." She glanced at her watch for a moment with a sense of anticipation: she planned on coming down to dinner tonight – a first since her operation – an occasion for her, a surprise for Frieda.
Cathie was so tired of eating alone in her room all the time, even those nights when Frieda might join her, that she felt a genuine wave of excitement, like going on another adventure.
"Ah," she smiled, sitting back, "going on adventures – what ripping good times we had, my Jack and me," she remembered fondly. Her late husband had died on one of those adventures, an African safari. But now she was old, alone and useless, no longer vital or respected, where going to dinner had become "an adventure."
A door opened – it was hard to tell where, the way everything reverberated – but the voices she heard were not familiar.
"We should look around outside," the one said, "it's possible she got disoriented."
"That was the young constable," Cathie recalled, nodding, "no doubt with the plowman."
"Aye, that." A rougher voice – definitely the plowman.
"Odd, they seemed so unconcerned she hadn't shown up yet," the constable added.
"But how we goin' to find her, sir?"
"Keep calling her mobile, Piers – with any luck, we might hear her ringtone."
She could barely hear what else he said as they opened the door and let in a bitter blast of wind, something about why the cabby looked like he'd been almost frightened to death.
"Well, yes," she thought from her own experience, "having a heart attack while driving in this storm could be frightening enough."
But somehow she gathered from the constable's tone maybe it wasn't that simple. "There is something more that's going on here."
The cabby wrecked his cab, his passenger's missing: what else could this mean?
Before her thoughts could carry her away on even a purely vicarious adventure, the same door opened again – a different voice.
"Mr. Policeman?" It was a young girl's voice.
"I'm sorry, dear, he's gone."
"It's just I've gotten some bad news – ma'am." She held up her telegram.
"My dear, what's upset you? Come, tell me..."
"Of all the rotten luck," the boy said, "mine's like all the rottenest, stuck in a snowstorm in this creepy house with all these creepy people." Jackie Knimble was on his break before they had to get dinner ready. Most everybody was over at Phlaumix Court, taping. He knew all his mates'll be hanging out later at the Poisoned Fish, the alternative club for cool people in Snaffingham (the Dog & Pony was for old farts, over-30 types like his dad).
Maybe that's where this Mumwidge Woman disappeared to before heading off to work, not that it'd be so crowded this early. Not that she seemed to be the type, depending who he's thinking of. Lucky for him he still had enough 'stash' to get through the night. Meanwhile, time to smoke a joint before dinner.
Jackie stepped outside under that port cochere thing assuming nobody could see him – so he might as well take a piss. Standing behind a drift-covered bush, could he write his name in the snow?
"Weird – where's that phone, ringing?" He looked around. "Was somebody else out here?" He continued pissing. "Damn! There it goes again!"
Then he looked down and saw where the snow'd melted away to reveal – "dude, what the hell is that!"
"Jesus freapin' Christ!" Jackie jumped back.
Of all the rotten luck!
Just as Knimble finished yanking up his fly, kicking at the yellow snow, he heard somebody running down the hall, yelling. "Jeez, I was only takin' a piss," he thought, "like, no big deal." Then he remembered the body he'd just unearthed – which was a big deal – and wondered how he's going to explain it.
Monty Banks, Director of I.T., was screaming like a banshee, his arms flailing. "Holy crap, I just found Bartowski – he's dead!" He'd been so distracted, he hadn't noticed Jackie outside under the port cochere.
The commotion brought some others wondering what's happened which brought other curiosity seekers. Soon, there must've been a dozen people there.
Jackie stood in the doorway and felt sick.
"Shut that door, you idiot!"
"But," Jackie stammered, "you gotta come see this," pointing out to the drift.
"It's Mumwidge! She's dead, too?"
"Kinda looks it..."
Two dead bodies found at the same time, not far from each other? Well, naturally the buzz reached a horrendous din. Even for SHMRG, this couldn't be a coincidence: something must be going on.
"Did you see any signs of foul play?"
"Wasn't there a break-in yesterday?"
"Do you think it was a murder-suicide pact?"
Soon, Igor Bieber was hurrying down the hall, Lex Luthier right behind him.
"So, what the hell's going on here, guys?"
When told two of their colleagues were dead, both reached for their phones.
"Hey, we can't call the police on this, not without the boss' approval," Bieber said while texting his boss in HR.
"Not calling the police, twit, I'm calling Darke – he'll know what to do."
"Seems weird two people'd die of natural causes," Banks said, "just like that." He checked Mumwidge's body looking for any clues.
Lucifer Darke, tall, dark and awesome, bulldozed down the hallway like a juggernaut, everybody getting out of his way or else. He listened as Banks explained what had happened while examining Mumwidge's body himself.
"No, of course not," Darke snorted, "we've no need of the police, here. We'll run our own investigation," then dismissed everyone.
Darke knew, with Steele being so weak, now, SHMRG could be torn apart by all these different factions that were developing.
It was obvious whoever was responsible for this would only be just beginning.
The girl looked like she was all of twelve or thirteen, Cathie thought, a bit slovenly dressed, perhaps, but who was she to complain about fashion?
"What seems to be the trouble, my child?" Holding out her arms, Cathie tried to sound as comforting as she could.
The child was short and rather dark complected, her hair black and unkempt, but her eyes were dark and deep, penetrating. If she wasn't intimidating enough already, she would become a most formidable grown-up.
"I just got this telegram – well, they couldn't deliver it, with the blizzard," she explained, trying her best to remain calm, but Cathie could tell her eyes were filling with tears, ready to burst. "And I wondered if that nice policeman knew anything more about what happened. You see, it was sent by the police."
The child handed it to Cathie as if she were an old friend who might be able to explain the inexplicable. She unfolded it quickly and read to herself:
= = = = = = =
"POLICE HOBOKEN NJ"
= = = = = = =
"Oh, poor dear," Cathie sobbed, enfolding her in her arms. "Such dreadful news!"
"They were on their way home after dropping me off at the airport," she explained between heart-wrenching sobs, catching her breath. "We'd run late and almost missed the flight. How could this have happened?"
After another long hug, the child pulled back and took control of herself. "I'm sorry, I'm Toni Avoir-duBois – but you know..."
Toni explained she'd arrived almost too late to register for the pageant – she's a composer which they weren't too thrilled about. It seems it's only for performers, though nobody bothered to tell her that.
Cathie couldn't comprehend what must be going on in this poor child's brain – and to have heard about it so impersonally.
"Have you not heard from your aunt, yet? She should've called by now."
"That's what's funny: I don't have an aunt – not that I know of. So, no," Toni said, "that makes no sense."
She explained how this conductor had suddenly appeared from nowhere two months ago and said he knew something about her birth-mother.
"He's very interested in the music I'm composing – said I should come here."
It was no secret she'd been adopted but never met her real parents. Cathie thought she took this all rather philosophically.
"Wait, Mom took a picture of us together before he left for London. He said he'd be here after I arrived."
She reached deep into a pocket and pulled out such a tiny phone.
"It's in here somewhere," she said, flipping through numerous images.
"Who is that?"
"Oh, that's my birth-father – he's such a hottie. I'm not even sure where my folks got this – presumably from my birth-mother?"
Next was the picture she was looking for: "Here's the maestro and me."
Toni stood beside someone Cathie knew very well.
"Do you know this conductor? He's a very old man," Toni said, smiling. "His name's Schnellenlauter. He gave me this message, but it doesn't make any sense to me – it's some kind of code? But," she added, "I'm only supposed to show it to someone named Frieda. He said she'd be able to understand it."
"Why don't I take you upstairs and introduce you to my friend Frieda. Then there's something else I must tell you."
Cathie led the way back toward the elevator, unaware someone was watching them.
With its vast amount of dark mahogany shelves, chairs upholstered in blood-red leather, deep maroon rugs and a black marble fireplace, the room was suitably oppressive, and that was without considering rows and rows of books, unopened for decades, bound in various shades of mostly dark leather. Only a few people were scattered about waiting for the meeting to begin, waiting for others who might appear or not. In fact, there were more people who couldn't make it than who could.
Any observer would think the weather's the problem but not for today's meeting which already had enough conflicts to contend with. Time being of the essence, Carmen Díaz-Éray decided they had to move forward. She also realized, with the Guidonian Hand now a full subsidiary of SHMRG, she needed to press Steele's agents into action.
Technically, the by-laws stated there should be five board members running the Hand, but Steele (as Divine Thumb) offered her flexibility: without a current Index Finger, Díaz-Éray (as Middle Finger) could run the show. Arthur Lemm (as Ring Finger), busy at Schweinwald, couldn't even attend by Skype; Scricci (appropriately the Little Finger) had his pageant.
It was time to update SHMRG's new recruits, explain the project to them, get them up to speed on the plans. Glancing impatiently at her watch, Díaz-Éray counted heads. "Where the hell's Lex Luthier?"
No sooner had this thought escaped her mind than the door opened up and in hurried a man making effusive apologies, early-30s, curly dark hair and the shadow of a thin beard growing in.
"Sorry – ran into some bodies that needed tending," Lex Luthier said in passing, like an observation one might make about housework.
Irritated, Díaz-Éray began at the beginning with the history of the Guidonian Hand, focusing on the primary goal of its existence: the eradication of every trace of Beethoven's dirty little secret from the world.
"I've just received word we've eliminated another descendent from the present gene pool, killed in an 'accident' in Newark, New Jersey. Unfortunately her daughter wasn't with her as reported, a teenager named Antonie Auvoir-duBois."
Lex thought there was a pageant contestant here by that name – "arrived late. Yeah, let me contact Melissa Fourthought – she'd know."
Maurice Hardy stood by the fireplace savoring the last of his Cuban cigar, not nearly as good as the ones he normally gets himself in London, but since it was free and all that poncy Marquess had to offer, he felt obligated to accept the gift graciously. It was fun, though, he had to admit, trading their childhood horror stories, both growing up the butt of detestable cousins. He hoped he might have given Sir Charles some ideas to think about.
The Marquess was certainly in a good mood when he went to leave, apologizing he had some correspondence to attend to. But he suggested they have "another spiffy little chat soon" before the wedding. An idiot or not, a marquess was always a good acquaintance to have in a world where name-dropping was considered networking.
This was another of those geometrically fussy rooms the house was full of, rosettes all over the floor outlined in mosaics. Each of these rosettes consisted of five smaller circles intersecting a larger circle. At the center, they formed a star like the pips of an apple which had been filled in with blood-red tiles.
With the smaller circles in black and the larger circle outlined in gold, this repeated itself unevenly across the entire floor, making Maurie wish the room had more rugs and furniture to obscure it.
Distracted, he tossed the unfinished, unwanted stump of his cigar into the fire and watched it sputter in the meager flames. Should he ring, he wondered, for a servant to come stoke the fire? How he regretted not staying home in London, instead of arriving so early. How could he tolerate dealing with these people?
His thoughts went back to that dinner he'd had in London last year with N. Ron Steele, the CEO of SHMRG, when Steele had seemed so interested in what ideas he'd had about music.
Curiously, Steele was intent on eliminating Cousin Rob's new opera before its premiere but not necessarily anything by others like him: "What would I really care about a bunch of left-brained, over-intellectualized, under-appreciated composers?" They'd eventually die off for lack of interest – no commissions, performances or recordings – once SHMRG's composers took control of the market.
The only reason Maurie had agreed to come to his cousin LauraLynn's wedding at all was because of some "unfinished business," but to arrive several days early was mistaken, given his general familial intolerance. He knew she'd only invited him because it was bad form not to; and he'd accepted it for the same reason. If he'd waited a few days in London, things might have happened differently, using this inconsiderate snowstorm as a handy excuse. But he wanted no blame laid on him if she postponed the date.
Steele's subsequent calls had pleased him, he knew, unexpected as they had been, meaning he was still a valuable, useful connection. He also realized truly powerful people in truly high places counted for something. And Maurie, a master networker, knew the difference between knowing someone like Steele and this idiotic marquess he had just met.
He'd been glad to help Steele compromise Rob, however extreme that had become, and now he's glad to help "compromise" LauraLynn. Whatever it meant to Steele was not important: his own agenda, however, was. He didn't quite comprehend Steele's deep-seated hatred of Rob's ugly and disturbing music, but he understood how plans must follow through.
Getting rid of LauraLynn's friend Terry Kerr, however, needed his own personal attention (why would SHMRG be remotely interested in him?) and that was why he made another call before he heard voices approaching.
After the curious incident of the cabby who'd gone smash into the snowbank, Cameron and I ran into Burnson and LauraLynn among those who'd come hurrying down the stairs wondering what the commotion was. Once that was cleared up, Burnson told me he'd had news from London and suggested we find a place somewhere private. He offered to show us the Rosette Room since I mentioned we'd already missed any kind of tour of the place and there was clearly so much to see (despite my naggingly vague familiarity).
The room, it turned out, was already occupied, filled with a sulfurous pall which Burnson explained resulted from his cousin's cigars, in the midst of which stood LauraLynn's cousin who'd apparently been smoking one.
With an expression like somebody caught in the midst of lighting a bomb, Maurie folded up his phone and pocketed it.
"Ah, Maurie, nice to see you," LauraLynn said, introducing Burnson. "You remember Terry?"
"Yes, cousin," he said sourly. "I was surprised you hadn't been at the door to welcome me into your new home."
"I haven't seen you since those wonderful summers in Maine," I told him, "eons ago," extending my hand which he ignored.
Apologizing that he had to make a call, Maurie turned to leave with a deferential nod to his cousin and me, joking it was bad luck for her to be seen before the wedding.
"I suspect my cousin doesn't share your fond memories of those holidays, Terry," LauraLynn said once the door was firmly closed. "We must've made his life a living hell," she explained, winking at Burnson.
"So, what's this news?" I said, whispering cautiously. "Is it anything about Schnelly?" Just then, I heard the door open again.
It was the big, bald-headed strolling violist who peeked in and apologized, saying he was looking for a place to practice. The man held up his viola case by way of explanation, then left.
Knitting his brow when I commented about a musician to serenade at dinner, Burnson said that Norman Drang had been found dead in the same hotel where we'd been having breakfast earlier this morning.
As Burnson described what the policeman told him, it sounded all too familiar.
"That's exactly how they found Schnelly," I said.
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with any luck, this link should become active on Monday at 8am]
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
The usual disclaimer: The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, which you've no doubt figured out by now, is a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents of its story are more or less the product of the author's imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody, occasionally by personal experience. Many of the places are real (or real-ish) but not always "realistically used." Other places like Phlaumix Court and Umberton are purely fictional. Any similarity between characters and real people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, but then, as Klavdia Klangfarben keeps quoting a former professor of hers, "Perception is everything." Yadda yadda yadda.
©2016 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train