Monday, October 27, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 10

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, Dr. Kerr, Cameron & V.C. D'Arcy are being pursued by three IMP Special Forces agents: Cameron gets separated and is detained. LauraLynn runs into someone wearing a very strange costume who turns out to be the musicologist, Rothbart Girdlestone, and has a very bad feeling about this. In the lobby, Fictitia LaMouche is about to be expelled by security when she meets Barry Scarpia.
= = = = = = =

Chapter 10

The room was definitely large – spacious, even – just like he’d been told but it was dark and chilly, especially damp, considering the afternoon’s rain, and the electric light barely penetrated the gloom. The bed was huge and quite comfortable, the furnishings old-fashioned and picturesque, but everything else was distinctly, depressingly medieval. Narrow lancet windows, slits in the stone wall close to the ceiling, left in little of the waning sunlight. Lionel wondered if it was safe building a fire in the fireplace.

That fireplace, walking back and forth in front of it, was almost as big as his room at Benninghurst, and should warm the place up nicely, getting rid of the chill. He found nothing to build a fire, only a pile of old dry logs without any matches or kindling.

There was one real window, heavily curtained, with old-fashioned beveled glass panes which looked out toward the darkly sprawling woods. Lost in shadows, the old cemetery across the road was already fog-bound. If he listened carefully, he was sure he’d hear a wolf howl. No doubt there were bats around, too.

What stories would these stones tell him, he wondered, and if they talked, would he want to hear them? He carefully pulled the heavy curtains closed, hiding himself from the world.

Lionel Roth, feeling smaller than usual, like a doll being kept in a dollhouse too large for its size, paced around the room that, for the time being, was his home. The grand piano was certainly grand enough but unfortunately out of tune; the desk was very large, dwarfing him.

He checked if perhaps some matches had been stored in a drawer.

“That’s okay,” he thought. “I’d probably only burn the place down.” Or at least the stuff that wasn’t stone.

Was it wise, he considered, following Dr. Dhabbodhú’s advice to come here? Between his fear of planes and his agoraphobia, was it necessary distancing himself quite so far from Sullivan’s murder?

Funny, seeing Sullivan’s friend – Dr. Kerr, wasn't it? – on the Munich train. He certainly seemed nice enough, he thought.

What was it Dhabbodhú advised, recommending he stay in this place, not just sit locked away in his apartment? What he wanted was something that would help him procrastinate, postponing reality. He could work on a new composition though he hadn’t finished the last one (he rarely ever finished one, anymore). Not that it mattered: no one was ever interested in playing them, and now he’d largely given up trying. What was the point of composing more pieces if nobody performed them?

His stint at Benninghurst had been an intense and unmitigated writer’s block, two weeks of sheer agony and depression. Wouldn’t it have been better, staying home in New York, watching TV? And then, after all those anxieties, everything culminating in that gruesome murder. Poor Robertson Sullivan – he rather liked him.

He’d been given the boot at the store two years ago, now, convinced someone had wrongly accused him of stealing, but why had he never managed to establish himself as a composer? He kept going over and over the same tired obsessions, whether he had no luck or, instead, no talent.

Oh, he was aware that someone out there was against him, fighting him everywhere he turned, holding him down. But what if his unknown enemy really was, he gasped, Robertson Sullivan?

Lionel threw himself down on the bed in amazement – an astounding discovery: what if that’s what Dr. Dhabbodhú really meant, telling him he could never name names because that wasn’t really professional? He had stressed it was Lionel’s responsibility to make his own discoveries and, ultimately doing so, thereby heal himself. He was only inferior as a composer – as a person – if he allowed others to make him feel inferior. That was a challenge, considering he did such a good job himself.

So, if Robertson Sullivan was his secret enemy and he was dead, maybe there’s nothing left to worry about and Lionel would soon be on his way, getting his big break? That was almost enough to make him jump up and run to the piano to start composing right away!

Of course, there was always that image of his friend Billy Bupkis who, when they were in 7th Grade and Lionel already started composing, kept bugging him about doing something more constructive.

“Like what,” Lionel asked him.

“Like anything,” Billy said. “That’s just stupid.”

He suggested Lionel should collect baseball cards.

Naturally, Billy thought that would be “constructive”: he loved baseball, wanting nothing more than to play in professional sports, but he'd never even make it on to the high school team.

Whatever happened to that guy, Lionel wondered, thinking back to past reunions: his grades weren’t good enough to make it into college and there'd be no sports scholarships coming his way. He’d worked at a fast food joint for ten years, then went to a trade school for a while. He’s been working on home construction crews and makes more money now than any teacher or artist Lionel knew. “Can’t get more constructive than that,” Billy laughed, slapping Lionel’s aching shoulder.

They were both middle-aged and neither really succeeded at fulfilling their dreams. Of course, Billy was happily married, had two kids, coached the local little league team and made more money.

Lionel never married, had neither family nor career, no amateur standing in the local music scene: who’d notice him?

Lionel had the greatest respect for Dr. Dhabbodhú, a man who treated him professionally and personally like a worthwhile individual. “If anybody’d take notice of me – more therapist than agent,” Lionel thought, sitting back on the bed with a sigh that echoed softly through his room – or was it the wind? It had been a great stroke of luck, then, meeting Dr. D., right at the moment that should have been his big break which quickly turned itself into a huge disaster. He’d spent a small fortune renting the recital hall at Carnegie Hall, especially placing that ad in the Times, and then hiring professional musicians (including three rehearsals) to play his music. Lionel even sent invitations out to critics, agents and publishers all over town, hoping to gain some professional attention.

“But in the end, he was the only one who noticed,” Lionel recalled, “and he hadn’t even attended my recital.” His smile filled with gratitude, reliving how Dhabbodhú talked to him afterward. Only a handful of people showed up, most of them Juilliard students, several who’d left after the first piece. Even two of his friends had left before intermission after he finished playing his “Twenty-four Preludes on a Spiritual.” By the time the string quartet started, the hall was totally empty.

It happened in the men’s room afterward, Lionel hurling his lunch in one of the stalls, trying to figure out how he could drown himself in a toilet (death by “super-swirly”). Dhabbodhú was there to buy tickets for tomorrow evening’s recital – with Robertson Sullivan, ironically – when he felt the urge. If Dhabbodhú’s bladder hadn’t sent him that emergency signal, it’s possible Lionel Roth’s life might have ended that afternoon. All Lionel did was ask him to hold down the flush lever.

Every time he remembered this, he had to take deep breaths to keep himself calm – Dr. D’s first advice. It could’ve been his greatest disappointment if not for the porcelain lining. Instead of talking him down off the ledge like a normal suicide, Dhabbodhú talked him up from the commode.

They talked for fifteen minutes before Dhabbodhú suggested getting some Chinese take-out, then taking a brisk walk to his brownstone, just off Broadway on W.68th Street not that far from Lincoln Center. (Actually, it was made of gray, not brown, stone so technically Lionel thought it was more of a flintstone.) And then, over plates of orange beef and Buddha’s Delight, they talked some more, continuing long into the night. It wasn’t that they talked so much about “shop” – more about life.

A small world that Dhabbodhú was also a composer (a friend of his had once studied with Sullivan, too). He turned out to be an ideal friend for Lionel – understanding, kind. Now Dhabbodhú brought him along to Schweinwald, "just what the doctor ordered." Lionel knew he must not fail him.

Trying desperately not to hyperventilate, Lionel forced himself to think pleasant thoughts, imagining himself walking through some pleasant mountain pastures, listening to the birds sing and water bubbling by in little streams.

“Imagine me in Sullivan’s shoes at his premiere,” he thought, “how that could be me, except I’m still alive.”

One of many things to think about – there were lots of things he needed to take time and consider.

But he had to admit, regardless, this room gave him the creeps.

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

Running deeper into the Festspielhaus basement didn’t make a lot of sense, but there weren’t a lot of options. Being chased by an odd-smelling hulk in a Marie Antoinette wig with harem pants didn’t make a lot of sense, either, but you rarely had a choice in picking your worst nightmares. LauraLynn had no idea where she was going, only hoping this beast was less familiar with the building’s layout, but regardless she was determined to get there as fast as possible.

She recalled seeing diagrams in Rob’s office how the Festspielhaus’s basement was divided into several areas like clustered units such as rehearsal rooms, scene shops or sets and costume storage areas, all of these just off the central underground parking garage which expanded under the new wing with comparable spaces.

The whole area was virtually black: if there were light switches down here, she had no idea where they’d be. On the other hand, maybe she’d be better off in the dark. While he might not see her, she could at least smell him. And she knew he was getting closer.

What was that smell? Like Proust’s madeleine, it brought back recollections of Grandmother’s house, childhood days spent playing upstairs. That’s it – that’s how she recognized the smell: in the closets.


Turning another corner hoping to distance herself from that smell as much as from this unshakable monster who smelled, she wondered how he continued to track her in the impenetrable darkness. Did he possess incredible night vision or a predator’s keen olfactory sense, like some odious (if odorous) jungle beast?

She was getting used to the dark but this failed to keep her from occasionally slapping into a wall, her Louis Vuitton heels, such stylish-looking shoes, clattering over the concrete floor. Anxiety-induced perspiration was rapidly undermining the delicate scent of her favorite perfume, Cannabis Rose, a mixture of Bulgarian roses, bergamot and patchouli with subtle undertones of oolong tea and dark chocolate. Unfortunately, now, she realized she’d have to forgo attending the opera tonight, considering she must smell like a goat.

“I’m out of disguises,” the monster realized, chasing her through the darkness. “How do I get out of this mess?”

There’d been several in addition to his favorite, the agent Iobba Dhabbodhú. Girdlestone was only a tux and a wig since she had already seen Dhabbodhú and would recognize him easily. He hadn’t invested much in the bum though he’d become rather fond of the little old lady, Claire Güllendorf. A pity he had to dump their disguises and leave them behind. Peeling off one disguise after another – the tux under Claire’s gown under the bum’s bulky sweat-suit – what’s after this? He’d be down to his boxers and it’s a long walk home. Bad enough he had to throw away Old Claire’s gown and wig, he’d forgotten his keys in Girdlestone’s pants.

And what’s even more maddening was, LauraLynn’s proven very adept at evading him, when this should have been a cakewalk. Perhaps she has better night vision than he has, like a cat’s. It didn’t seem to matter which way he went, left or right, she always ran in the opposite direction.

“Wait a minute! That’s how she’s doing it,” he thought. “D’oh!” Stopping short, he realized he reeked of mothballs.

Very carefully, he stripped off the waistcoat and set the wig aside.

“The pants have to stay,” he reluctantly decided, “even in the dark.”

Undoubtedly, he was now totally shocking – awesome, even. Padding stealthily forward, he could easily follow the sound of her footsteps. The hallways were long but not wide and up ahead was a dim emergency light faintly illuminating a door. The shadow of a desperate woman, her beautifully coiffed blonde hair beginning to come undone, passed across the light.

Trying the door, she discovered it was locked. She turned and waited.

LauraLynn glanced furtively first left, then right, sniffing the air like a frightened deer unable to find her bearings. The idea of being hunted like those beautiful, delicate animals sickened her. There must be some way out of here, she pondered, peering as far into the murk as she could.

“Take a deep breath, dear,” the voice said, civilized but with a malevolent edge, coming from out of the shadows.

She froze, her eyes peering toward the unexpected sound. She smelled nothing.

“Perhaps you are pretending to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil – like your cousin, hmm?”

Wait, she considered for a split second: he knows about Rob’s murder? How could he possibly know about that – those details weren’t in the papers – he must’ve been… there. Which means…?

“Something else I need to know and I might let you live: I know you're very close to your cousin. Wouldn't he tell you about the location of this Fountain of Inspiration? Not only do I want that journal, I need that and that gizmo he talked about – remember the gizmo?”

“What was this man talking about,” she wondered. Was he that big guy who'd broken into the wedding reception? “Is he the man who fired the shot ultimately killing Aunt Katie?”

It had been such a happy afternoon when Katie’s granddaughter got married, the room full of family and friends. What was it Rob had yelled at him – something about a gizmo?

If this monstrous musicologist allegedly killed both Aunt Katie and Cousin Rob, wouldn’t he now kill her?

“But why?”

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

Fictitia cautiously took the hand Scarpia held out to her and followed him up the great staircase to the mezzanine where ushers raised their eyebrows as they tried to stop them entering. After being pushed aside, did they think, “How nice, he’s trying to introduce his rebellious teen-aged daughter to opera”? Taking their seats in the Board President’s Box, just left of center, Fictitia was assuming those who knew him were more likely thinking, “Now look what the old cat’s dragged in.”

Hearing no singers, she noticed the conductor, some old dude on life-support. The audience leaned forward, paying close attention. Were they also wondering if this guy’d make it through the performance? She thought she heard a woman yelling – backstage? – but she wasn’t sure. Considering singers’ feuds, this could get interesting.

So far the curtain hadn't gone up, too boring for her taste. “There’s a problem, here,” she realized, skimming through the plot synopsis: “nobody dies! What kind of an opera is this!” Not that she cared for all that stupid emo stuff but really, like, not one lousy character gets offed?

Fictitia squirmed in her seat, which was the wrong thing to do: Scarpia quietly took her hand in his. Great, she thought, already grossed out, and they haven’t even started singing.

She recalled he’d said, promenading up the stairs, opera was like ice-cream, that you didn’t need to learn how to like it, you knew it the first time you tried it. Then he added, with that annoying leer of his, “kind of like sex, too, now that you mention it.”

“Not that I’d mentioned it, fucktard” but she kept her mouth shut, not that she ever liked ice-cream, either. Thinking of sex with him, she definitely considered heaving over the rail.

Now the singing dragged on – lots of guys lurking in the shadows – she wondered what he’d do if she suddenly tore her t-shirt off, exposing her boobs and yelled “Help! Rape!” Sitting back, she was glad she couldn’t read his feeble mind because that’s probably exactly what he was thinking.

Once the mezzo started singing – not bad; too perky for her taste – she pulled out her cell and checked Facebook. Over a thousand likes and comments plus dozens of new friend requests. She hadn’t posted any reports on Twitter since she ran into Scarpia and needed to get things caught up. She tapped in posts about being nearly expelled by the security guard, then getting escorted into the opera instead. She asked “anyone catch the TV pre-show? heard it was a train-wreck.”

The Director’s Box was practically empty, except for a few local dignitaries, and Scarpia had been irritated neither “Dead Beat” D’Arcy nor the dead guy’s cousin had bothered to show up. She snapped a pic of the box as some big-wig and his bejeweled wife saw her and sneered. Perfect!

Responding to various coughs and knowing nods from the next box, Scarpia leaned over, putting his hand around her cell.

“We don’t do that during a performance,” he smiled at her patronizingly.

“No,” she whispered back, “I didn't think you would,” then yanked her phone away from him and continued tweeting.

She realized there were no mosh pits in concert halls, but wouldn’t the orchestra pit here work really well? Snap! Post. The pic of the old codgers already had 150 re-tweets.

Scarpia was getting annoyed. Here he was, Schweinwald’s board president with some punk kid old enough to be his granddaughter – that was totally cool – but she wouldn’t put the damn cell-phone away. Now she was asking him what he knew about this mysterious BandanaMan. He’d seen her tweets – what’s the point?

“Maybe we could talk about that after the opera?” he asked her. “We could have some ice-cream.” (Or sex.) When she grimaced, he thought, “okay, fine, we can skip the ice-cream.”

“Game Time.” He slipped his own cell out of his pocket and logged onto his secret account as SlimTodLX. He sent Fictitia a private text, hoping she was enjoying the opera.

“No,” she texted back, “bored &c – U?”

“Its OK.” He reminded himself to abbreviate. “Wd rthr b w/u. Ltr?”

“What’s so interesting about an old bum falling into the fountain, anyway?” Fictitia mentioned even the security guys seemed to be all revved up about this one, still continuing under her breath. “Now, leave a severed ear on the fountain with a coded message, then things would start to get interesting!”

In fact, that would’ve been downright kinky, Scarpia thought. He liked kinky. And Fictitia was also kind of kinky. Nice ears, too, but he’d get his tongue caught in those piercings.

“im wrking,” she texted SlimTodLX back. “bzy 2nite &c. sry.” Who’s this? She checked his profile: typical – totally blank. If he’s German, “Tod” meant “Death,” but he didn’t sound very Goth. She wondered what was going on with Cameron, if he was okay. That’s who she’d like to see tonight.

“Hey tod u kno re:BandanaMan? need 2 find out more re:that dude.” If she’s a reporter, now she’s working.

“No, sry :-/”

“Nvrmnd. Thnx&c.” Damn…

“Thnking of U + ur &c…”

“Sry, i gotta go – im w/POF – ttyl” She went to hang up but the guy sent one more text.

“POF? like ‘person outstandingly fuckulent’?”

“lol i wish – pompous old fart ;-)”

Scarpia tried not to react but got an idea and quickly sent her a photo with a tracker virus.

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

D’Arcy and I scrambled down the darkened hallways trying to avoid using his key-card to find a place to hide, still hoping we could reach LauraLynn before that suspicious-sounding musicologist found her. When we reached an open well-lit area, D’Arcy looked around and stopped. Too late – there was no one there. The parking garage was ahead of us, the library to our left. The hallway on the right looked inviting, but a potential killer would try keeping you from reaching those elevators.

Desperately hoping to catch my uncooperative breath, I tried asking him between puffs where she might have gotten to, preferably nearby in a direction that might have been more adequately lit.

“He must have chased her back toward Niebelheim,” he said. “Hear anything?”

“Other than my pounding heart? No, sorry…”

“With any luck, he’ll chase her right into the path of those IMPs running after us and they’ll rescue her.”

A nice bit of choreography, I thought, but somehow not very likely. We needed to rescue her and somehow avoid those very agents ourselves, not to mention find Cameron as well.

Without another word, D’Arcy grabbed me by the arm and dragged me back down the darkened hallway we’d come. He tried shushing me but my lungs, about to explode, were insubordinate.

Again, he stopped suddenly and I nearly fell over, banging into him, shushing me again with no better success. I desperately tried holding my breath but it didn’t seem to matter.


I heard distant footfalls, someone running.

“What’s that smell?”

I croaked out, “I live with five cats, so...”

“It sounds like something's coming from over there, around the central unit.” He dragged me deeper into the maze.

“What if it’s those agents?” I asked, suggesting perhaps we should hide.

Not far ahead, there was a doorway underneath a dim security light.

“Looks like we’re in luck,” he said.

D’Arcy pointed out somebody’d left the door to the scene shop open.

“What if it’s a trap? And shouldn’t we be looking for LauraLynn?”

“We have to solve the gizmo.”


Without further explanation, he pushed me through the door ahead of him. The room inside was vast, dark and silent. Pulled tightly shut behind us, the door locked with a resounding click. Occasional points of dim light along the side wall were barely enough to see where we needed to go.

While we stood waiting for our eyes to adjust to the gloom, he asked if I had the artifact. Looking around, I hugged the tote-bag close to my chest and nodded.

“Am I to take that as a no?” D’Arcy asked, sounding concerned.

“No,” I said, catching my breath finally.

“Did you drop it somewhere? We need that to catch the murderer!”

“No, I meant ‘yes, I have it.’ It’s here in my tote-bag,” I said. “What did you mean, ‘gizmo’?”

D’Arcy grunted, perhaps embarrassed to admit he couldn’t remember the word ‘artifact.’ He led the way down what appeared to be a narrow aisle between cluttered shelves and equally cluttered work desks. Turning on a small desk lamp, he told me to sit down: it was time to examine the artifact.

The first thing I saw was a hand-painted heart-shaped medallion on the doll’s breast pocket surrounded by fine letters, written in German.

“From the heart, may it go to the heart.”

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

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