Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Story of Nepomuck and How He Found His Killer Viola

For the past seven weeks, I have been working on another novel, a music appreciation thriller, The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, the third in a series starting with The Doomsday Symphony, then The Lost Chord. The 2nd in the series is a complete rewrite of the parody I'd initially written after reading Dan Brown's novel, The Lost Symbol, but I didn't particularly care for it (the original or my parody) but I liked a lot of the details, especially the character names.

Now it came time to revisit the earlier Dan Brown parody, based on his novel, The Da Vinci Code which became The Schoenberg Code. I still like this even as a free parody, but I didn't want to just throw it away, so again, I took elements of it and turned it into a new, original [sic] thriller that is becoming The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben.

Today, since it's Halloween, I thought I'd give you a preview with two excerpts (expanded from the earlier parody) taken from different chapters that tell a story-within-the-story: how the villain, Nepomuck – or rather, one of the villains, Klavdia Klangfarben being the main villain – found what becomes the murder weapon.

The novel is set on December 16th, 2013, mostly in and around London, but the rest of the plot is immaterial to the following excerpt. Suffice it to say, Nepomuck has just killed his third victim.

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

Rossiniana's, near Wigmore Hall, mid-morning on a snowy day

A large balding man in a rumpled overcoat carrying a tattered viola case slid into an isolated booth at the back of a popular Italian restaurant. Nepomuck always liked it here, stopping by regularly, enjoying the menu's endless variety, a place famous for its numerous pasta dishes. He also liked that they played nothing but the finest Italian classical music, mostly Rossini (naturally) but also Vivaldi and Verdi, hardly anything more recent than Puccini's glorious melodies except maybe Respighi's Ancient Airs.

Young Gioacchino, the owner's son, bustled about, smiling, urging on his kitchen staff, and noticed one of his regulars settling in. He always took time to chat with customers, greeting them like old friends. Lots of his customers liked this easy-going familiarity as much as the food, and usually first-timers would quickly turn into regulars. 

But Gioacchino knew this one, the large balding man in the rumpled overcoat, kept to himself, preferring to be left alone. He was always friendly to him, of course, but the man rarely responded. There were all kinds of people, he knew, but basically only two types: out-going friendly people, and then those who weren't. 

This guy whom he knew only as Nepo was one of the introverts but he always ate a ton of food. Gioacchino knew he'd lose money on this guy if he ever went "all-you-can-eat."

"Eh, Nepo, my large friend, good seeing you! What'll it be this morning?" Young Gioacchino waited while Nepomuck scanned the specials. Meanwhile, Gioacchino scanned the restaurant as other customers arrived and waved to them. 

Nodding his approval, Nepomuck ordered the breakfast lasagna, made with sausage and bacon, which came with scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. 

Gioacchino, a spry, wiry man over 80 already, bounded off to the kitchen. ("Young" was a relative term to distinguish him from his father, the owner: Old Gioacchino only worked on Sundays, any more.) 

Nepomuck placed his tattered old viola case carefully beside him on the bench and wrapped his equally tattered scarf around it. It was awkward slipping out of his coat, so he left it on. Standing well over six feet tall and weighing a solid, bear-shaped 340 pounds, he had enough trouble fitting into the booth.

He preferred coming to Rossiniana's after a gig, unlike that place on Mandeville: much simpler and less inclined to notice him. It was food he was after, not ambiance, not to mention cheaper prices. He could afford three entrees here, most likely, compared to just one there, and, still a growing boy, that was important. Of course, his being a free-lance classical musician also meant budget was important, and they're very good about "doggy bags" here. He could just imagine asking for a box from the waiters at Mandeville. 

It was these unfortunately infrequent special gigs that tired him out the most, made him the most ravenous, especially for Italian. He wondered if anybody here had noticed he'd also been in last night? He had the dinner special, a Florentine lasagna along with some pasta fagiole. In fact, he'd ordered three servings of each. 

Last night's had been a particularly exhausting gig with another early this morning, the drawback of a limited window of opportunity, considering Nepomuck wasn't a soloist or even a very good freelance section player. Like most people who were not musicians themselves, his employer never understood artists, especially what it took to develop that skill. 

Nepomuck had developed a very good specialized reputation, proving music was fully capable of doing more than soothing the savage beast. If artfully handled, he found he could use his instrument to kill people.

He never remembered much about his early childhood beyond wanting to study music which had become a solace to his reality. Nepomuck loved listening to music, especially the good old tunes of classical music. He found he could lose himself in music, become transported to another world through its beautifully expanding melodies or exciting rhythms. Someone had once handed him a toy drum which he'd thought too pedestrian and he'd beaten the crap out of it. But it was a violin he'd stumbled upon that really captured his imagination. 

The only memory he had of his mother, beyond the vaguest of recollections, was watching his father bludgeon her to death after what had started as just another fight (that's when he ran away). After coming up with so many different identities, he'd forgotten his real name by the time he arrived at the orphanage.

It was a janitor there – someone named Blindt – who had christened him Nepomuck, though why didn't make any sense to him. It's a big awkward name, he thought, and he's a big awkward bloke. Of all the other aliases he'd tried on for size over the years, he felt this one maybe suited him best. 

But it was hearing the old man play the violin late at night when all the other children should be asleep that made him want to learn to play and give his life purpose.

After weeks of listening in the tranquil darkness, Nepomuck approached the old man and asked if he would consider teaching him. So the long process of his training began on that very same night. He struggled learning how to hold the thing, how to draw the bow, how to produce a sound that wasn't painful. 

Blindt told him he must practice each day once he started playing melodies, working eventually toward an hour every single day. "It could take thousands of hours, my boy, maybe even ten thousand hours!" 

Mr. Grinder, the director, reluctantly adjusted Nepomuck's schedule despite not seeing the purpose of weekly music lessons and needing to practice. "It's a waste of time," the old worn-out teacher complained, "rots the mind!" 

"Ten thousand hours at an hour a day," Nepomuck estimated: "that's twenty-seven years! What kind of idiot would work that hard?"

Maybe life at Dothby's Orphanage was not easy but Nepomuck didn't really notice. It seemed little different from his previous life. Every day was practically the same except for days he had his lessons. Bullying from the other children was one thing, he was used to that, and the abusive adults were like his father. But it helped he quickly began developing as a boy, growing taller and, more significantly, broader across the chest and shoulders. Though not the oldest of the boys there, he'd easily become the biggest.

Eventually he found the others left him alone, meaning there was less fighting, and he realized his size gave him security. He only fought to defend himself, he'd say: he wasn't one to attack. In fact, Nepomuck hated violence which didn't mean he wasn't incapable of it. It's just he didn't care to use it.

So, the bigger he got, the less the older children beat him up, an easy target who appeared to be stupid. Instead, they teased him because he was slow but this didn't bother him. The fact is, he knew he was stupid, everybody always told him that – "slow and stupid, that's our Nepo," they'd say. 

Everyone except Old Blindt at his violin lessons where he made excellent progress and was now practicing two hours every day. The only consolation was found in his music. Nothing else mattered to him.

The problem was he didn't have much talent and Blindt had his limitations, a player of little technique and less experience. Plus the boy was physically outgrowing his violin, presenting all kinds of problems. Besides, Blindt grew up as a dance-band musician who played mostly old-fashioned tunes which even the staff at Dothby's couldn't recognize. 

These were the popular songs from his youth, back when life was good, tunes that wafted him into a nostalgic fog, plus the usual bunch of folk songs everyone could recognize but not remember. 

But Dothby's was not equipped to teach music beyond Miss Carbunckle's little chorus where students learned to sing some popular tunes. Music existed primarily to entertain them, like recess, and didn't require private lessons. 

Director Grinder agreed to send him to the town church for his lessons where he began studying with Dr. Franklin Stein.

Long ago, when Old Professor Stein was a young man everybody called Frankie, he was a jazz pianist with monster chops, plus he played violin in the local orchestra and conducted his church's choir. He listened to classical music quite often and even loved opera, he confessed, building his musical taste from this and that. He had little patience for rap music, though, and even less for what other people considered the "pop music du jour," so he'd stopped listening to it years ago – "there were limits," he'd stressed. 

When Nepomuck arrived at the church to meet Professor Stein that first time, the old man was playing the pipe organ, what he later found out was Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The sounds continued to reverberate around the church even after Stein stopped playing but ricocheted inside his head for minutes longer.

Nepo said he'd never heard such music before, asking him not to stop, so the old man obligingly kept on playing. The sound grew in volume and became faster, flurries of notes cascading everywhere. Once the music roared to its inevitable conclusion, Nepomuck shouted bravo and applauded. Music had always been soothing – this... was exhilarating. 

But it would be impractical for him to take lessons on the organ, not having access to one at the orphanage. Besides, solving the violin problem was easy enough: Stein handed him a viola.

As the other orphans were gradually all adopted, soon replaced by new ones, Nepomuck was now the senior orphan at Dothby's on the verge of finishing his allotted time, ready to be cut loose. Then after Blindt the janitor became ill and Nepo substituted for his mentor, he realized, "here's something useful I could do."

Since Old Blindt soon became too weak to return to work full time, Director Grinder agreed to make Nepomuck Blindt's assistant, since he'd essentially finished all his necessary classes and needed an occupation now. 

One night Blindt was taken to the hospital after he'd suffered a stroke, Nepomuck going along, playing his viola for him. After the old man died, Grinder asked Nepomuck to become Dothby's chief janitor. 

As career paths went, it had been no different for Blindt who'd started there as an orphan himself, never to leave.

Through all this, Nepomuck had kept up with his lessons from Professor Stine, shuffling off each Wednesday for the village church. Sometimes he would go in early, hoping to catch him practicing the organ. Being the janitor kept him quite busy but his evenings were his own when he could practice late into the night. 

Being the janitor also meant he had his own room – a cell, really – a little privacy just off the basement steps. There, he could practice three hours every night and not bother the others.

He was making great progress, Stine told him, mastering several popular classical melodies, great tunes from Beethoven symphonies or Verdi operas. This classical music, even older than Blindt's songs, he found new and exciting. On an old radio Stine had given him, one station would play nothing but great hits from two hundred years ago. 

Even if he didn't know the themes or what the chords were doing, he pretended he was part of the orchestra, scraping along with the sounds, trying to fit, getting the hang of it. 

At first, not knowing what he was doing, he admitted it sounded awful, but with familiarity he could figure it out; rather than playing the melodies, he'd find a note that fit the harmony. 

And when it was over, he would laugh and applaud from sheer joy, feeling happier than he had ever remembered before.

Sitting there, waiting for his breakfast at Rossiniana's, Nepomuck felt that same satisfaction, warming to old and pleasant memories nearly forgotten, how the discovery of something new had given him a sense of power. That awareness of satisfaction was something he rarely felt before – felt rarely since – but it was good to feel it again. 

Realizing he might become a musician had given his life some meaning, then, rising above the horrible, empty childhood he'd endured. He filled with pride when he was handed his first musician's union card. 

Stine trained him well and worked him hard, had him play in church, and included him in the school's student orchestra which no one seemed to mind since there were few other violists around. From there, he was hired for several performances by the local opera company, known for being quiet and a hard worker. 

"It's only been a few years," he reminisced, almost breaking into a smile, "but it's like such a long time ago." The waiter sat down a plate heaping with lasagna, scrambled eggs and bacon. How much trouble it had been to find a tux that fit him – "cost more than the gig's pay, that did." 

And now he's attained a whole new plateau in his career, he thought, "one where I shall excel and achieve success. I've been inducted into the Penguins of God! I wear its uniform proudly!"

The gig that changed his life was the one where Stine asked him to play as part of a chamber ensemble before a big-time banker from London was going to be speaking about music, some philanthropist whose goal was to preserve the great masterpieces of classical music, a talk he called "Why You Hate Schoenberg." They had practiced several hours, getting it right, playing one of Mozart's divertimentos and of course his favorite piece, Pachelbel's Canon. It promised to be a big crowd and the speaker was very persuasive.

He likened music to the Garden of Eden, this long-sought-for, unfortunately long-lost paradise where there stood two trees with tempting fruit, one full of beautiful simplicity and lovely melodies, the other full of thorns, and how we music lovers should eat plentifully from the Tree of Enjoyment but avoid the bitter, disappointing Tree of Knowledge.

In every age, there were those who ate too much of Knowledge and pushed Enjoyment beyond the boundaries of good taste, and these composers, their music and their advocates needed to be weeded out. After he ended by asking them to join him in this important cause, Nepomuck went up to him, ready to enlist. 

It sounded like he had been recruiting believers to form a great army to protect Beethoven from the likes of Schoenberg, and Nepomuck, a committed believer, would never forgot that man's name: Maurice Harty.

But then he remembered, before enjoyment, before fulfillment, Nepomuck knew, even before he could become one with his plate of lasagna, there was a phone call to be made and news to be reported. He had now completed three assignments – so far – with further instructions awaiting him. He reached into his pocket for his phone. 

Like his viola, this was a special phone designated for only one purpose, programmed to communicate with only one special person, encrypted to circle the globe to reach someone who might be blocks away. 

It was the voice he always heard that now spoke clearly to him, relaying his instructions, requiring confirmation of his success, always speaking in a low, digitally modified voice, the sibilants like drawn-out hisses. 

The call was quickly answered by a man known only as The Serpent. The news was quickly imparted: all was good.

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

Nepomuck slipped his phone back into his pocket with a smile of satisfaction as Gioacchino brought him a heaping second serving of the breakfast lasagna special. No words were spoken between them this time – nothing needed to be said – as Nepomuck again tucked in with evident delight. An overnight cook told Gioacchino some big bald guy'd come in before midnight and ordered three dinner specials, one after another. Looking at Nepomuck's obvious enjoyment, Gioacchino needn't imagine who that might have been. 

Food was only part of this customer's satisfaction, if the restauranteur only knew, and the ambiance hardly even entered into it. Yet it wasn't just a hard night's work that somehow affected his appetite. The funny thing was playing his new viola for any length of time always made him especially ravenous for Italian food. 

Once again, Nepomuck admitted he felt overly warm sitting there in his overcoat, heated up by his breakfast and the coffee, but then he remembered why he was not supposed to take it off: The Serpent had told him if he's seen wearing a tuxedo at 9am, it would only call unnecessary attention to himself. 

"No self-respecting free-lance musician would be out playing a gig at that hour," his master had warned him, citing security protocols. "Jazzers might get back from late-night clubs then but they don't wear tuxes." 

Nepomuck had left Professor Stine's church after a rather long concert months ago – a wonderful program full of Telemann and Vivaldi – and he'd forgotten to change out of his tuxedo before returning to Dothby. Along the way, he was taunted by some school boys calling him names until he rose up to his full height. 

Standing behind them, leaning against the village fountain and completely oblivious to everything, was a drunken bum he'd never seen before. Or at least not someone he'd seen recently until it dawned on him. 

Standing in the moonlight, wearing his tux, his viola slung over his back, Nepomuck realized the drunk was calling him names. It was the wheedling voice he recognized first, a pestilence from his past. 

He immediately went over and began pounding his fist into the man's face, the man he last saw killing his mother.

Should he murder his own father this way, attacking him on the street? He wanted to, but was it worth it? The police would catch him and then they would throw him in prison. He didn't think they'd let him play his viola in prison – would they? – so he decided there must be another way. 

A few days later, Professor Stine showed him a new instrument he'd acquired, a large cream-colored viola brought in for repairs. Aside from a few cracks around the sides, it didn't look too bad. 

The odd finish, as if it'd been dipped in a white cheese sauce, was without a doubt its most striking feature but not necessarily its worst problem, Stine figured, demonstrating the instrument's 'wolf tone.' This was an acoustical phenomenon that plagued even very fine instruments, he explained, a nasty sound originating from the lower strings.

But Nepomuck's mind wasn't on Stine's scientific demonstration ever since seeing his father and realizing how much he wanted him dead. This man had recently been released from prison but he had changed little. Nepomuck contemplated beating him to a bloody pulp like he'd beaten his mother, perhaps several times before he'd out-right kill him. 

There were many ways he could kill him, playing them in his mind, then he'd run away again, escape the police...

"Nepomuck," Stine said with a kindly smile, "have you heard anything I've said?" 

This unusual, supposedly 'legendary' instrument, Stine was explaining, came to him quite accidentally, a local businessman hoping it could be repaired, an instrument he'd found in an old cheese shop when traveling through Cremona. It had, he'd whispered mysteriously, a "strange and unusual history going back centuries," rumored to have been made in Stradivarius' workshop. 

What Nepomuck most liked about it, more importantly – it was larger than most standard violas and easier for him to play. Too bad about that ghastly finish and those ugly wolf tones, he thought. 

The weirdest thing was, after you'd played it and it warmed up enough, the room smelled like a plateful of spaghetti or more specifically like the grated Parmesan cheese he always heaped on spaghetti. Supposedly the result of a lunchtime workroom accident, it completely ruined the finish, an apprentice spilling alfredo sauce onto fresh varnish. 

Stradivarius instruments are, naturally, valued for their tone, their exquisite, rarely matched sound as well as the beauty of their finish. This poor instrument, set aside before being completed, was basically sold for scrap. 

A woman named Ricotta Fontina bought it to hang in her cheese shop where for several centuries it absorbed fantastic aromas. 

The fact Antonio Stradivarius made only a dozen violas in his storied career should have added some value to this one: with its odd, white finish and cheesy smell, this became the "Unlucky Thirteenth." 

Stine set about over the next few weeks to fix the various cracks and with any luck eliminate the wolf tone though he could do nothing about the finish or its unusually fragrant varnish. He figured the change in climate after all these years aggravated its problems, given England's cooler, damper weather compared to Italy's. 

With the help of his newly hired apprentice, a young boy named Silas, Stine took other old violas, discarded and broken, to find the necessary parts that, added inside, might correct the wolf tone. 

Then, on a particularly dark and stormy night, Stine had finished his work and played an impromptu performance for young Silas. But the wolf tone turned out to be worse than before – much worse. 

Before Stine knew what happened, he saw poor Silas fall to the floor, a horrific expression of fear upon his face.

Nepomuck had braved the storm that awful night to come help his teacher when he called about disposing of a body. The professor tried to explain what had happened but it hardly seemed possible. If word got out his playing could cause a listener's death, no one would ever hire him again – he'd be ruined.

A month later, Nepomuck, sneaking into the church, watched Stine practicing the viola when one of the local delinquents broke in. He watched as Stine marched toward the boy, repeatedly playing the wolf tone.

Immediately, the would-be burglar halted in his tracks, falling to the floor – dead! Even behind glass, Nepomuck knew it sounded awful. Other than the horror on the boy's face, there'd been no visible violence.

Once again, he helped his teacher drag the body down into the crypt and that's when they both figured it out.

There was something about the wolf tone that'd been amplified by Stine's repairs, how both deaths happened around the full moon. Whatever he'd done to it, Stine had turned it into a killer viola. It left not a single mark upon its victims, no sign of murder, and yet somehow the player had remained immune.

"The wolf tone has become even more evil – it's become a Werewolf Tone!" The poor professor, Nepomuck realized, began babbling incoherently. "God, Nepomuck, I've created a monster," Stine wailed. "Here, take it – destroy it!"

The old man fell to the ground, sobbing, when Nepomuck had an idea and threw the viola into its ancient case. Hurriedly tearing the bow from his teacher's hand, he disappeared into the night. Nepomuck would find his father and kill him by hardly lifting a finger but it would still be a horrible death.

It didn't take long to locate the bastard, partly visible in the moonlight, lying there drunk in a back alley nearby.

"Here, old dad," Nepomuck said, "let me play you a nice little ditty."

What started as Brahms' Lullaby quickly turned into a fiendish shredding of sound once he began violently attacking the wolf tone. The beast who'd beaten his mother to death now shrank back in horror.

Holding his hands to his ears, his father thrashed about, then fell back.

Nepomuck quickly checked the body. "Like a doornail!"

He stood back, delighted with his new discovery. "My god, it really works!" (Then he realized how hungry he felt. Pasta!) At long last, his mother had been avenged and the evil man punished. Here, his father was dead just as if he'd shot or strangled him and with a great deal less effort, too. There was not a single mark on him, no sign of physical attack. The only trauma was visible on his face. Certainly it was quick if not exactly painless and a lot less messy.

Another thing he realized as he put the viola back in its case: "Here's something I can do – and do well." But what kind of career options were there for a free-lance hired assassin? It wasn't like he'd be in big demand plus was there a union? – and then the matter of income and benefits.

At that moment, Nepomuck decided to leave the only home he knew behind, heading off in search of fame and fulfillment. But where would he go, and how would he realize his new dream? Then he remembered hearing that businessman from London who'd talked about defending Beethoven, protecting us from musical villains like Arnold Schoenberg.

He would offer his services to the cause, but how to find him? There can't be many bankers named Maurice Harty.

This, Nepomuck knew, would be his true calling.

He'd become a serial killer.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Yesterday, I finished writing 97% of the first of the four parts of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben (about 44,893 words out of a projected total of 149,082 words) – there's a segment of an inserted document (a musicological flashback) that I intend to write and insert later – which is not exactly one-fourth of the book, more like 30%.

But now I'm going to take a break and write another novel for NaNoWriMo 2013 - since November is "National Novel Writing Month" - in which the writer's goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel. Unfortunately, since what I've written so far of The Labyrinth has taken seven weeks and still hasn't reached 50,000 words, I've decided to take a different approach and try something that is less... well, complicated to write. 

And that one I hope to be "live-blogging" every day during the month (we'll see...). 

It is called An Ineluctable Modality.

– Dick Strawser
© October, 2013