Friday, September 11, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 2

Welcome to Chapter 2 of "The Schoenberg Code," a serial novel by Dick Strawser and parody of Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code.' The story Continues...

Stepping back from the body, Nepomuck slowly cleaned off his viola and returned it to its case. Once again, the instrument had worked its evil magic. He knew the viola alone would probably not kill a conductor used to hearing bad notes from viola players much of his career (he may even have become immune to them over the years). There might only be 20-30 minutes before the effect of the White Wolf wore off, if it didn’t kill him outright. But there wasn’t time to wait: there were footsteps in the hall, possibly a guard making rounds to make sure everyone had left the building following the concert.

There was a quick rap on the door. “Maestro? I’ll be locking up in ten minutes.” But he walked on without waiting for a response.

Nepomuck knew there wasn’t much time: he then quietly took a gun out of a side compartment in the case, applied the silencer and shot the body twice in the chest - pfwwp! pfwwp! - before unwinding an extra C-string which he wrapped tightly around the conductor’s neck. As the coup de grace, he took a syringe out of the rosin compartment, held it to the light to check that everything was ready, then knelt beside the body, injecting its deadly poison into the wound made by the C-string.

“My work here is done. I have the information, just as I suspected. They all said the same thing.” He sniffed the air with a great sense of satisfaction and smelled the familiar whiff of cheese. “But now I am hungry.”

He was always hungry after playing The White Viola and contemplated a big plate of lasagna as his reward. He latched the case tightly, straightened his tie and flicked off the light. The guard, should he return, would assume the maestro had already left. No one would discover the body until the cleaning crew would arrive next morning. Being a Saturday, with any luck they might even be late. He could be on his way to Vienna, by then.

He shuffled off down the dimly lit hallways, passing the now darkened green room, hoping to avoid the guard. He would explain that he was late leaving the orchestra’s dressing rooms but he could not risk being seen leaving the hallway where the conductor’s dressing room was. Still dressed in his tuxedo after the concert, he was too memorable a figure to be easily forgotten, with his frizzled blondish-white hair and pierced eyebrow. Being well over six feet tall and 280 pounds didn’t help make him inconspicuous, either. Maybe he should've changed into street clothes. But luck was with him. He made it to the back stage door without being seen.

He thought.

He loosened his tie, began to unbutton the shirt-front, then slid the jacket off, folding it jauntily over his right arm, carrying the large viola case in his left hand. Lumbering off toward 7th Avenue, he looked like any other classical musician finishing the night after a gig. He turned left and after a few blocks found Gioacchino’s Trattoria, an all-night Italian restaurant. Nodding at the pretty girl smiling behind the cash register, he slipped into a booth and ordered a large helping of the Florentine Lasagna special before plodding off to the rest room with his viola case at his side.

Once the man in the stall slipped away after furtively glancing at the large-bodied man trying to look nonchalant by the sink with a large instrument case resting up-ended against his leg, Nepomuck went into the stall. Under his tuxedo shirt, he wore his favorite t-shirt with the image of a famous cartoon penguin on it, a shirt made especially for him out of stiff goat’s hair which rubbed angrily against his skin. He tightened the gut A-string tied around his upper right thigh so that it cut more deeply into his skin. He could feel the blood begin to trickle on his thickly muscled leg once again. It felt good. He pulled up his trousers, tucked in the shirts, carefully washed his hands and quietly returned to his booth where a steaming plate of lasagna awaited him.

But first he said a silent prayer, mouthing words that no one there would have understood. He placed his large hands on the table, then decided before he could eat, he must make one very important call. Taking the cell phone out of his pocket, he punched one button – on this phone, there was only one number he could call – and waited till a sleepy voice answered after only four rings.

“Yessss?” The voice, despite the malevolent lingering on the ‘s,’ sounded sleepy but eager. Nepomuck knew in London it was after 4am but also knew his call was anticipated. He recognized the voice of this man known only as The Serpent and figured perhaps he had dozed off while waiting. Some things could not be hurried.

“It is done.” There was a pause. He could hear a sigh on the other end of the phone.

“You have the information?”

“Yes. Just as I suspected. They all said the same thing before they died. It’s hidden beneath the bust of Beethoven in the maestro’s dressing room at...” (he paused for the effect) “the Musikverein in Vienna.” His voice was almost toneless and lacked any sense of triumph.

The recipient of the call, however, reacted otherwise. He was both indignant and amazed. “In our very midsssst,” he hissed, the ‘s’ in ‘midst’ drawn out almost like a snake’s. Clearly, he was appalled that for perhaps a century or more, the secret they had all been trying to suppress lay hidden in the heart of their own domain.

The only thing Nepomuck minded was being cheated out of getting his hands on it himself. He knew another agent would probably be sent to the famous concert hall, not him. He wanted to present it to his mentor himself, but he knew now this would be unlikely. He had been disappointed when all three maestros, who happened to be in New York all at the same time, told him it was actually in Vienna. It made sense, but it seemed auspicious they should all be performing in New York City the same night. If it were here, he could lay claim to it himself before the sun rose. Now three concerts would have to be canceled tomorrow night: their conductors were all dead. But that was in itself a certain satisfaction for a man who spent much of his life playing in orchestras.

He signed off with his call, put the phone away, then looked at the plate of lasagna that was getting cold sitting there waiting for him. The restaurant played nothing but music by Rossini. The pain around his thigh increased as he repositioned himself in the booth but only now did he dive into his late-night dinner. It was all good. He had worked hard and wanted to enjoy himself: later, he would practice Bach for three hours. Maybe four.

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

We sat in the dressing room, staring at the note pad in front of me. It made no sense, even when I divided the string of seemingly unrelated letters into actual words.


Clearly, I had made a stupid mistake somewhere. I kept going back to the original line, then the “transposed” line. Perhaps I had miscounted, using the Rule of 12. Perhaps it wasn’t the Rule of 12 I needed to apply? What, if anything, was Schnellenlauter trying to tell me?

“You don’t think he was just creating an elaborate joke, do you? It almost sounds like something out of Monty Python...” Buzz was clearly disappointed.

“Wait, you’re right. It IS out of Monty Python! I always thought it odd such a dignified and serious man as Maestro Schnellenlauter enjoyed the antics of that British comedy team. After he had seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he often sent me anagrams that would turn out to be lines from the film, like 'a moose once bit my sister' or...” Realizing it might embarrass Tony whom I’d just met, I decided to skip the scene at Castle Anthrax.

“We’re not going to be looking for the Holy Grail, are we?” Tony moaned. “I was hoping for something simpler than that.”

“Schnellenlauter often recited whole scenes of it from memory – the French Knights or the scientific explanation of how coconuts might have ended up in Britain... Yes, I think this might be correct after all.”

Not caring to admit they were unfamiliar with Pop Culture before they were born, nor wanting to embarrass me further and make me feel older than I already felt, both of them looked at me with obvious anticipation for the explanation.

“Okay, in one of the skits, a newly arrived Hungarian, dressed in a bowler hat and raincoat, walks into a London shop and reads lines from a Hungarian-English phrase book that is clearly all wrong. Nothing corresponds to what it means. At first the store clerk is helpful, trying to figure things out with various pantomiming, but as the lines become more risqué, the clerk calls in a policeman who arrests the man and hauls him off!”

I realized I was laughing the kind of insider’s laugh only memory can induce which perplexed them even more: they looked at each other as if they were thinking, “that’s supposed to be funny?”

“Uhm, at one point, the Hungarian says ‘My hovercraft is full of eels.’ It became a kind of greeting between us, at least for a couple of months... instead of saying hello, you know?” It was clear they had no idea why either of us should have found this amusing. “I’d forgotten all about it!”

“So he’s saying ‘hello’? Isn’t there an easier way of doing that...? Like, just writing the word ‘hello’ down?” Tony was clearly skeptical. HellOOOooooo, she seemed to be thinking.

“It’s just a way of getting my attention.”

“But he already did that, don’t you think: arm and leg out like a viola clef, writing your name on the slip of paper? And you wouldn’t have gotten THIS much if his cell phone hadn’t gone off, with that transposition clue. How could he have known it would ring just as you’re standing there reading his note?”

“How would I know – I’m not writing this, am I!?” They looked at me with considerable doubt. “Oh right, I am...”

Tony spoke first. “Speaking of that phone call, I wonder if Inspector Hemiola’s found the source of that number?”

Just then I realized something about the Python line: I could see the letters for the word “VIOLA” in it.


I was on to something, I was sure. I began scratching away, moving some letters around to uncover the coded message. Maybe it meant something after all.

Just then, there was knock on the door, the sergeant telling us Inspector Hemiola wanted to see us. Gathering up our few things, we followed him into the hallway but rather than turning left toward the Green Room, he’d gone off to the right. Tony looked at me quizzically.

“Isn’t he still in the Green Room?”

“No. We found something else.” With that, he rapped on the door of the main dressing room. A gruff “yeah” came from inside – clearly it was not good news Hemiola had found – and the sergeant pushed the door open, allowing us to enter before him.

There was a strong odor of cheese in the room. Some of the furniture had been moved around, a chair knocked over and a glass shattered on the floor. Had there been a fight? Schnellenlauter was known to be forgetful but not clumsy. Then Hemiola stood aside and I could see writing on the tile floor of the bathroom.

It occurred to me that both Mahler and Tchaikovsky had used this bathroom, among many famous visiting maestros: it made me want to look reverently at the toilet. But it was also the room where, apparently, my friend had died. But how did his body get to the Green Room?

“Does this mean anything to you, Dr. Dick?” He had already placed a call to their cryptography department but unfortunately Agent Anna Graham was away on a summer vacation.

The three of us peered in at it. It was another Fibonacci poem, one letter per tile, the last line underlined, as it were, by the bath mat.


“Well,” said Buzz, “that would certainly explain the transposition.”

“But what’s the fourth line?” Tony wondered. “It must be another code for a three-syllable word.”

“Or words,” I said as I quickly scribbled it onto my note-pad.

“Man, I’m getting hungry. This smell of cheese makes me want to go out for some lasagna or something.” Buzz was often hungry which seemed natural in somebody only a few years past being a teenager, though I know he felt that was “long ago,” now.

“Do you still think Schnellenlauter hasn’t named his killer?” Hemiola seemed more testy now, but perhaps his patience was wearing thin as a result of finding still more clues. He motioned us back into the main part of the room. “Anything else you recognize about this room?”

Recognize, I thought: I’d never been in this room before. But then I saw it on the surface of the little table in front of the mirror. Clearly the cleaning crew had not been here, yet: a bloody finger had written “OP 45" into the dust.

“No, I don’t think we’ll find the killer’s identity here. I suspect these are further clues to WHY he was killed. I’m beginning to see some patterns here. The fourth line is clearly a coded clue, perhaps the identity of the composer who wrote an Opus 45.” I looked closer at the table and saw in the mirror that Tony was still in the bathroom and had just bent over as if picking something up. Hemiola and the sergeant had stepped closer to the outside door in a whispered huddle. Then I noticed Tony stand up with a look of shock on her face: without any comment, she stepped quietly back into the room, holding a finger to her lips. Buzz looked at her quizzically and cleared his throat again. Damn those allergies.

Hemiola turned around. “Sergeant Sforzando will take you back to the other dressing room. We have more to do here. I suspect this is where the actual murder took place, but apparently Schnellenlauter didn’t die here. Somehow he managed to leave all these clues and then wander down to the Green Room where he arranged himself as you saw him. What I want to know is why...”

“Not to mention who killed him,” Buzz added in a studiously controlled voice.

“Oh, actually, I’m beginning to think I’ve figured that out.”

“Really,” I said, more as a statement of disbelief than out of genuine curiosity. But then his cell phone rang. He was using the Ride of the Valkyries as his ring tone. How droll.

Hemiola turned his back to us and barked into the phone. “Yeah?” then “Yeah!” and finally one last, drawn-out “yeah...” as if he were thinking “verrrry interesting.” He was old enough, he might remember ‘Laugh In’ but I wasn’t going to try explaining it to my two young colleagues.

He turned around and asked us very politely if we wouldn’t mind waiting back in the other dressing room for a while. “By the way,” he added, reaching for his pad, “your real name, Dr. Dick, I don’t think we’d been officially introduced: it’s Stouffer, isn’t it?”

Before I could correct him, Tony spoke up and said “Yes! Yes, it is, how rude of me. I’m so sorry, I should have been more formal when we met – out back!” She said the last two words very deliberately.

“Ah, good,” he said, writing it down. I looked over at her and saw Buzz smiling his usual “I have no idea what’s going on” idiot’s grin and figured I’d best go along with her.

The sergeant opened the door and then followed us down the hall back to the room we’d been using earlier. Once the door was shut, I heard him lock it. “Odd,” I thought.

Tony whispered to me what she had discovered in the maestro’s bathroom. “There was one other line, covered by the shower mat. It had almost been obliterated but I could still read it: DS – GET DR. DICK.”

“You mean P.S., probably? No doubt how I'd gotten involved in all this,” I suggested helplessly.

“D.S. – your initials?” Buzz was genuinely studious in his expression.

“No, probably not – we always used my real initials, RAS, with e-mails. And what was this Stouffer business, anyway,” I asked, looking at Tony.

“Don’t you get it?” she asked. ‘GET DR. DICK’ it said. He's always asking about why he didn't just name his killer? Then he sends us back down here and locks the door?”

Slowly, her words sank into my greater consciousness and I leaned against the wall.

“You’re his suspect. He thinks YOU killed Schnellenlauter!” She looked at me intently. “We have to get out of here.”

“But I couldn’t have - I mean I have an alibi. After dinner with Jean-Claude Plusvitefort, I went to the concert and then back to the... the... hotel, whatever it’s called and...” then realized, since Buzz had gone out partying with some friends instead of taking in the concert, I was of course alone the whole evening after dinner, which meant in fact I had no alibi at all. My shoulders slumped lower against the wall and I could feel myself beginning to sink.

“Well, decipher this code, then,” Tony said, looking at me intently. “I could just barely overhear who was talking to Hemiola on his cell phone? Your friend – Maestro Plusvitefort – was just found this morning in his hotel room near Lincoln Center?”

“Yes, he’s conducting a concert performance of Berg’s ‘Lulu’ this evening at Avery Fisher and... wait, found??” Suddenly, a dingy room at the Cheap Bastard Arms seemed a lot more appealing.

“Found... murdered... shot through the heart and strangled with a viola string.”

Buzz cleared his throat. Yessir, he thought, Dr. Dick is in Deep Stuff now.

Little did he know how deep.

To be continued...

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
© 2009

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