Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Schoenberg Code: Chapter 7

In the previous installment of this serial novel, Dr. Dick, Buzz & Tony have discovered their search might not involve Schoenberg that much after all: on that day, June 24th, 2006, something was to be revealed about Beethoven's secret - as the story now takes on a new direction.

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After receiving his latest call, Nepomuck dutifully signed out the Penguins of God’s official “company car” on the excuse he would be picking up their Director, Charles Leighton-Quackerly, at the airport and driving him to the concert. The idea was to have it ready whenever he would get word from The Serpent how he should proceed: if this Dr. Dick person would be leaving the city, he would need to follow him.

Now dressed in his regulation tux with the White Viola lovingly packed in its sturdy case, he made sure the syringe he usually kept in the rosin box was once again full of his special poison, freshly mixed with some new Intocastin he’d managed to get from a trombonist colleague who worked as a technician at a veterinary hospital in Passaic. In small doses, this curare-based poison would put animals “to sleep” by relaxing the respiratory muscles, but when mixed with his own secret ingredient – scraps of old sheet music for Pachelbel’s Canon slowly burned in a test-tube so as to savor the fumes produced in the smoke – made for a doubly lethal dose that on the one hand slowly relaxed the victim into that final rest but on the other then serenaded him into eternity by implanting the music directly into his brain, creating a deadly “ear-worm” that could drive any lover of contemporary music insane. Now incapacitated, the victim could do nothing in this brief state of suspended animation but give himself over to what Nepomuck considered the most beautiful music in the world, offered as a benediction in that final moment of consciousness. He had no interest whether the victim might actually convert, that was not his concern: like the medieval Church, he believed the victims were justly dying for the sin of Not Believing which no amount of repentance could absolve, but at least their souls might be saved for the afterlife. Like many of the terrorists operating in the greater world today, his job was simply to send them there.

Fully prepared for his next assignment, now he had nothing to do but wait. He decided to fortify himself and went to his favorite restaurant just around the corner, a little Italian place called “Antonio’s Appena intorno all'Angolo” which served probably the best lasagna in this part of the Upper West Side and played nothing but the music of Vivaldi. He was in luck: this morning they were in the midst of some concertos for the viola d’amore. He would have to remember to tell Leighton they should rename his instrument the “Viola della Morte.”

Then he ordered the lasagna special. Does it get any better than this?

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

Despite its erratic flight from Lincoln Center, no one seemed to notice the helicopter, except Chief Inspector Hemiola and his men from the International Music Police. Returning to the I.M.P. van, lovingly referred to as the “Ludwig Van,” Hemiola decided that neither Agents Accelerando and Fermata nor Sergeant Sforzando were the best drivers in a case like this: he needed the agent with the best reflexes and that would have to be a 15-year-veteran named Ed Libitum. He could turn this van around on a dime which came in handy when the chopper made that sudden about-face after originally heading toward the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, ‘turning on a dime’ is a skill lost on the Henry Hudson Parkway in mid-morning traffic, so they wasted valuable time taking the next exit then getting back on the north-bound side of the highway.

But as the helicopter was preparing to land, they realized it was several miles north to their first opportunity to cross the river and so they debated calling in the FBI or at least the New Jersey State Police. If nothing else, they could report it as a case of “stolen aircraft” which might even bring in Homeland Security. But Hemiola was adamant about this: it was a clear case of musical homicide and Hemiola was determined he was going to bring this one in himself.

Their destination was not problematic: even without binoculars, you could read the name “Lance Teabag” on the side of the helicopter but it was assumed to be a brand-name corporate logo, each of them being die-hard coffee drinkers. But somewhere in the back of his mind, Agent Libitum remembered the name as a board member at Lincoln Center, enough for Hemiola to place a call to the I.M.P. desk to track down the residence of this Mr. Lance or Mr. Teabag or whatever his real name might be.

No one answered on the first call. A second number got the lunchtime replacement for a receptionist who said that Agent Polly Tonal was not in today – he had forgotten it was Saturday and some people actually had what he used to call “weekends.” But this was bound to be the biggest case of the summer season, so he wanted the best possible players on his team: Polly was definitely the best multi-tasker in the New York office. His call was transferred to Agent Mimi Solfege.

Having figured out the chopper had landed at an old ruined castle just below Fort Lee, they sped across the bridge only to find themselves detained by a jackknifed tractor trailer on their exit. Meanwhile, Agent Solfege was having difficulties tracking down anything helpful about a Lance Teabag: lots of information about his books and articles on fairly arcane musical subjects but nothing practical. She was okay, he thought, but she tended to just go up and down the same stuff all the time: she really was only a warm-up act compared to her boss, Polly. But then, it was the weekend so you play with the cards you’re dealt.

Digging deeper into the files, Solfege discovered that, as Agent Libitum had suspected, there was a Lance Teabag on the board of Lincoln Center which would explain, to a point, the presence of his helicopter there. Was he perhaps the ring-leader and Dr. Dick only the hatchet man? Were they meeting at the old castle before planning a further escape – or the next step of their murderous spree? They must have some kind of exit strategy: only an idiot would plan some caper like this and not have a detailed exit strategy. Trying not to think of his cousin Ben Marcato who was still in charge of the military bands in Baghdad, he wondered where it might lead them and how much time they had.

The radio then began playing a movement from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” which Hemiola always preferred in the piano original (there were times, he admitted, he could be such a snob). Serendipitously enough, it was the section called “The Old Castle.” Though earlier he was wishing they’d been listening to a station with frequent traffic updates, he felt this was divine verification of his thoughts. He asked Mimi to pull up the satellite view of Fort Lee and focus down on the exact location of the castle where they'd seen the helicopter land. She was able to give them directions in a matter of seconds.

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

What Agent Solfege couldn’t see, just before her computer crashed, was a rickety old station wagon of some nondescript Japanese model with the license plate “OPUS 1" climbing the hill toward the front gate.

Nepomuck had a grudging fondness for this car he sometimes called “Hiroshima’s Revenge.” The worst part was its horrid yellow color which made it look like a cab: he could never drive through the city without repeatedly getting hailed by people on the street and then being given the finger after driving past them.

He had received the anticipated call from The Serpent, directing him to the old castle on the Palisades. He was to take the Lincoln Tunnel to avoid the George Washington Bridge and one of the direct routes that was closed while being repaved. Before long he had made it to the top of the hill only to be met by an impenetrable wall with a great gate. He pulled the car over onto the shoulder, making it look like it had driven into a ditch. Then he walked around to the side where he found the place The Serpent told him would be accessible and clambered over.

It was rough going as it was, so he was glad he’d strapped the White Viola’s case to his back. He followed the path that led up to an upper level of the house – he could see through some windows but saw no one: how well his tux camouflaged him on the overgrown path was another issue – and from there he was told he could drop down onto a small lawn-like outcropping. There would be a gun there, hidden behind a rock, and there would be a key. He could figure it out from there.

When Ed Libitum finally found the right road to reach the castle after a most unfortunate detour, it was only a matter of ten or fifteen minutes before they found themselves in front of the gate. Hemiola looked around for a buzzer or some kind of PA-system but could find nothing. Agent Fermata leaned against the gate, yawning out of sheer boredom, only to discover the gate was unlocked, in fact unlatched. They walked in cautiously, Agent Accelerando pushing ahead. They were standing at the main door when they heard rapid firing from a machine gun: that was when they broke the door down.

Following the commotion, they entered a room where a hulking blonde in a hospital uniform was playing Rachmaninoff on the piano far louder than necessary. It was not likely his playing had shattered the window or brought down the chandelier. No, the holes in the walls and ceiling were clearly caused by a machine gun. But the only other person there was a maid wearing fishnet stockings. She turned to look at them with some surprise.

“Sorry, it was only a cleaning accident. The central vac backfired.”

A man dressed like a butler but instead of the usual trousers also wearing fishnet stockings rushed in wondering what had they meant, shooting up the place like this, how they had gotten in – and did they, in fact, have a search warrant, he added menacingly?

Hemiola had no idea what he had gotten himself into but sent the men out in various directions to look for Dr. Dick while he questioned these two amidst the wreckage. It would have been easier if this lunatic would stop playing the bloody piano.

So far, this day had bad reviews written all over it.

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

“I don’t believe it,” I gasped. But, clearly, seeing was believing.

Renfrew and Buzz secured their captive with some of the stockpiled duct tape the government had said would be the best deterrent against terrorism. They dumped their very own terrorist into the luggage compartment of what clearly looked like no helicopter or plane we had ever seen before: black, sleek and shaped a bit like a bat's wing. The cliff-side door opened silently to reveal the skyline of Manhattan on a brilliantly sunny summer afternoon. Everybody clambered in as Renfrew started up the engines which were amazingly quiet. “We were in a plane,” I thought – “and, better yet, Buzz wasn’t flying it!”

“Welcome to the ‘Time Warp.’ My apologies for the fracas back there,” said our host, “but you never know what kind of trash will find its way into your neighborhood these days.”

Renfrew revved the nearly silent engine which sounded little louder than a lawn mower coasting its way toward the opening. In a moment we were airborne over Manhattan.

“You Americans feel you have all the latest technology. If your army could get its hands on my Time Warp, your President would think he’d become the Master of the Universe.”

It was thrilling, I admitted, though I was happy to be in the middle of the backseat between Tony and Teabag. Buzz had started up the Wild Blue Yonder song again which Tony then turned into a round but without any interest from the rest of us and some bad parallel intervals a few bars later, it quickly collapsed. Exhilaration was replaced by the knowledge that work, and a lot of it, was still to be done.

We were joking about the guy playing Rachmaninoff so unbearably loud when Buzz slipped me a carefully folded scrap of paper. Thinking it might be important and needed to be kept secret, I tried to read it surreptitiously while Lance was getting ready to pour a round of drinks from the copiously supplied bar on his right. On it, Buzz had scrawled the words “Rachmaninoff = Reach Fine Orgasm in F.” He was smirking like a 13-year-old but when Tony leaned over and read it, he turned bright red and sunk into his chair. She just shook her head. Boys...

“Now then, Dr. Dick,” Teabag asked, “since it seems obvious you are not our murderer in triplicate, tell us where to, next? Where does our scavenger hunt take us now, hmm?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “The last clue was fairly vague – school days and bust dusters... Perhaps you could tell us more about this Academy dal Segno? What is it and what connection does it have with Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved?”

“Ah, well,” he said sitting back into the comfort of his plane, “I have only recently begun researching this organization. It was founded by some members of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde – the Society of the Friends of Music,” he added solicitously for Buzz who nodded back to him. “The Society was founded in 1818 when Vienna had already been a magnificent City of Music since the days of Haydn and Mozart in the 1770s and ‘80s, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. With Beethoven’s death in 1827, some members realized his little secret might create some problems and so they moved to protect the woman they knew was the Immortal Beloved.”

“They knew who she was?” I was astounded – nowhere in the literature was there any actual verification of her identity.

“No. They knew HER. And her daughter who was by then 14 years old.”

“Daughter? Beethoven’s daughter?!!?” I was even more astounded.

Tony sat back into her seat, feeling that tingly sensation again which she dismissed as the effect of the ‘Dominant Seventh’ she had just tasted – one of Teabag’s specialties made of various parts vodka, 7-up, a dash of amaretto and a lot less tonic than usual.

“There were, apparently, a boxful of letters between them over the years, including all of the ones she and the little girl had sent to the composer which had been returned after his death by their mutual go-between. Apparently he – or she – missed the one that was found in his desk, the famous one written to her that summer of 1812 at the spa, Teplitz. When it became clear there were those who felt this knowledge would harm Beethoven’s image as a genius...”

“Schindler and his small-minded morality, no doubt,” I added, nursing my own drink rather cautiously. Beethoven’s constant assistant those last years had become infamous for having sanitized the Master’s life when he wrote the first official biography: it took decades to separate fiction from fact, still misleading people today.

“Among others, yes,” he continued, handing a drink to Buzz, “people who would try to destroy the letters which would obliterate any proof of their existence. But no one outside the Academy knows anything about them. The Academy itself is fairly small and very select. Only the initiated know more than that they existed. A mere handful knows their identity and only one, the Grand Maestro, knows where the box of letters has been hidden. It is passed on from generation to generation, usually through a very specific and very beautiful musical ritual, from what I can tell, but perhaps they weren’t able to make any plans this time,” he ended with a suggestive wave of his hand into the air.

“So you think Schnellenlauter was the current Grand Maestro? But who would kill someone for this information? Much less kill three conductors for it?”

“I really don’t know who the Grand Maestro is – or was – but I’m pretty sure, among past Grand Maestros were Schubert who’d been a pall-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral... and then Schumann who could have discovered it in the box of manuscripts that also contained the Great C Major Symphony... Don’t forget Schumann’s Fantasy in C, Op. 17, his contribution to the Beethoven memorial with its last movement all about love... Then apparently Brahms who would have gotten it directly from Schumann himself if not from Clara, whether he got anything else from Clara or not... Then, perhaps Mahler who knew Brahms and I would suspect Schoenberg who knew Mahler and had even painted a picture of Mahler’s funeral. From there, I have no idea. I suppose conductors have had it in the past: why not now?”

“Hmmm, I know Schnellenlauter met Schoenberg in Hollywood but he met Stravinsky then, too, and many other famous composers – all the time, actually. I don’t think he ever talked about Schoenberg any more than he did anyone else whose music he performed. I know his wife Frieda had sung for Schoenberg several times before he died – she was just out of grad school then, but I remember her saying how much he had loved her voice. In fact I’m pretty sure that’s how she met Schnellenlauter – he was conducting a performance in L.A. for Schoenberg’s 75th Birthday. I think he said it was the First Chamber Symphony and she was singing in the 2nd String Quartet before intermission. Perhaps she was the connection? He never talked much about her after she died – in fact, hardly at all.”

“But,” he said, “not to change the subject, I’m afraid we can’t just hover around Manhattan all afternoon, Dr. Dick. The Time Warp may be able to elude radar and its fuel source might seem infinite, but still I think we need a destination. Let’s look at the clue again – school days? Would the clue lead us to someplace like a school? And if so, which school? And how would we find the next step in the quest if that isn’t the final clue?”

“Come on down, Dr. Dick,” Buzz hooted from the front of the plane. Renfrew frowned.

Tony turned suddenly toward Teabag. “So you think these will actually lead us to the box of letters that would reveal the identity of the Immortal Beloved and Beethoven’s daughter?”

“It’s possible. I was pretty sure it was in Vienna – that would’ve been logical. Not knowing who the Immortal Beloved was myself, she might have been a visitor at the spa that summer, since I think it was more likely they agreed to meet there, not actually meeting there for the first time. So it’s possible she too was from Vienna. Anyway, we know that this box - and I'm sure it's just a small box - was moved at least twice, the last time I’m aware of before Hitler took over Austria in 1938 – which might imply that Schoenberg had taken it out of Vienna when he fled to Paris and from there to... well, New York City." That city was beginning to fade beneath us as a storm front approached from the southwest.

“But wouldn’t he have taken it with him when he moved to Los Angeles? And then, after he died, many of his papers were returned to Vienna, right? Perhaps after the war, he felt it was better now for them to return, too.” There was also an important Schoenberg library left to UCLA where he taught in the ‘40s, but no mention had ever been made of a box of letters.

“But right now, we’re looking for a school – could it mean UCLA where Schoenberg taught?”

“Or is it simply that Schnellenlauter meant it for the person he was writing out these clues? That would seem to be you, Dr. Dick.” Tony was looking intently at me.

“Well, I met Schnellenlauter at Eastman when I was there: he was a frequent visitor in those years. But what would Beethoven’s letters be doing at Eastman? Oh, wait...”

The others stopped and turned toward me expectantly. Teabag’s eyebrows couldn’t possibly arch any more than they already were.

“I was a composition major with a minor in musicology. He was always telling me to focus on composing. He didn’t want to see me become, as he put it, ‘just another bust duster.’ That was his derogatory term for a musicologist.”

Teabag drew back, offended.

“Ah,” Tony said, “but if a bust duster is seeking the Immortal Beloved, does that mean the next clue is at Eastman somewhere? And then that one would lead us to the box of letters?”

“But it says the Immortal Beloved’s Quest,” I reminded her, “which implies SHE is on a quest, not that she is the object of a quest.”

“She’s seeking... empowerment, perhaps?” Buzz pondered.

“But I’m thinking a little... well, more deeply here. It’s not just a matter of her identity and Beethoven’s daughter,” Teabag said as he mixed Tony another drink and handed it to her. “I think this may lead us to an important discovery.” After a suitably pregnant pause, he added, “that the descendants of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved walk among us today!”

Tony practically convulsed in shivers and handed the drink back to Lance, with her apologies. “I’m sorry, I just can’t drink any more right now. It’s really very good but perhaps it’s the altitude.”

“Rennie, maybe we should show our friends how well the Time Warp can perform? I’d say let’s go to Rochester, New York!”

Renfrew reset the dials, turned the plane into the afternoon sun and advanced it to warp speed.

Buzz, thrown back in his seat by the acceleration, yelled “Oh yeah, do that thing you do!”

Manhattan became a blur behind us, and we were off!

To be continued...

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Author's note:
The Schoenberg Codeis a musical parody by Dick Strawser of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Stay tuned, some day, for his next serial novel, The Lost Chord.

Dr. Dick
© 2009

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