Monday, October 06, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 5

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, one of the locals has been run off the road by a speeding black van with New York plates; moments later, the responding police officer is also run off the road by a speeding black van with New York plates. Coincidence? Back at Benninghurst, it has been discovered that Robertson Sullivan has been brutally murdered. After the police arrive, Cameron receives a message from Rob Sullivan but time-stamped after he would have been killed. The back-up disc of the just-completed opera's score is missing from his coat pocket. Kerr assumes somebody doesn't want the premiere of this opera to take place.
= = = = = = =


Holly Burton poured him another drink – a simple gin and tonic, his favorite – before returning to her seat where she continued poring over reports he’d be presenting at the London meeting tomorrow. She looked like a dowdy middle-aged librarian, but he knew deep beneath that business-like efficiency was one hot mama. But that’s not what was on his mind tonight, seated in his comfy recliner on his private jet, whisking him away from the heart of his empire in New York City.

N. Ron Steele, himself dowdy and middle-aged, was the very model of a modern corporate executive, founder and CEO of SHMRG, rapidly becoming the largest music conglomerate in the entertainment industry. In another two years, his plan for world domination should be complete, his power-base absolute, his wealth absolutely unimaginable.

He was traveling light, this trip, taking only his indispensable administrative assistant, the indefatigable, resourceful and ruthlessly loyal Holly Burton plus one of his rising stars, Basil Carsonoma of Mergers and Acquisitions, after spending the last several days sequestered in his office working out the details of this London take-over scheme.

The problem, once again, was dealing with all those dead composers in Classical whose music was still being performed. Couldn’t they find some way of getting around these annoying Dead Beats?

The dead guys were useless because they didn’t bring in any revenue, why he’d tried eliminating them last year. Whatever happened to Klavdia Klangfarben, anyway? She never did show up again. That had been one hare-brained plot – brilliant if it had worked, killing off the great composers of the past. If the old masters had never existed, performers would have to turn to other composers to fill the void and he’d make sure they would all be replaced by SHMRG-licensed composers.

It’s not that the classical division was all that significant when you talked about numbers or the bottom line. Anybody interested in ratings new the latest pop stuff was what counted. Some of it was good for licensing – not the nerdy intellectual stuff, but the pretty things people could hum.

That was why classical music was such a sticking point with him: composers kept wanting more of the glory! The dead guys were one thing, since they didn’t expect any profits. It was the living ones – or, worse, the estates of the recently dead – always talking about crap like “intellectual property.” With pop music, how many people cared who actually wrote the song? What mattered was who sang it and whose recording spent most of the time on top of the charts.

You talk to the average music consumer on the street, he’d argue, they’ll assume the performers wrote those songs, even as far back as the distant days of Elvis and beyond, proof the person who actually created the song isn’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things.

Soon he’ll have bought out the rest of the recording companies, the few that were left, and taken control of the agencies who represented the artists, booking their recording and concert contracts. Not only could he increase his profits by upping his licensing fees, it was good for the economy, too. Every radio station, paying more each time they’d broadcast a SHMRG song, meant they had to employ more salespeople to increase their revenues which was good for businesses looking to advertise.

Didn’t Thomas Jefferson say over two hundred years ago “whoever controls the newspapers controls the population” or something like that? Steele was never very good with quotes, accuracy less important than intent. He’d leave the exact nuances to those scholarly geeks as long as he managed to get his point across. And the point was, nobody reads newspapers today: they’re folding up left and right. Plus very few of those left aren’t bowing to the power of popularity and the advertising dollar. While other corporations battled for control of the major television networks and their various news programs, influencing their content, he knew where the real power was because not everybody watched TV news, especially among the younger generations (and that was his target demographic) – but everyone, he knew, listened to music.

By studying how business has succeeded in talking the American consumer into parting with his hard-earned money for material things, Steele built his corporate prototype on the simple concept of peer pressure. Once the most gullible faction of the population liked your product, the others will feel compelled to follow suit. From politicians creating their own polls, he learned that convincing the public what was the best, giving it the right spin, meant you could compel them to do anything you chose.

Speaking of quotes, didn’t Plato once say something about the influence of music on the well-being of the state, how it needed such careful regulation – censoring, actually – in a society’s education, how that would leave the greatest mass of people vulnerable to deception, manipulation, and eventual enslavement by a tyrant?

There was another favorite quote from someone about music and the state, something like, “If you let me write the nation’s songs, I don’t give a crap who writes its laws”?

So while he’s at it, why not make a run for President? He could have everything consolidated by 2016. He would be the ultimate political outsider, yet controlling the electorate completely.

And since that momentous Supreme Court decision, perhaps SHMRG could be the first corporation elected to the White House?

Checking the phone after it started ringing, Steele put his drink aside and sat back in his plush reclining seat before he decided to answer it and savor the much anticipated news, knowing it would not disappoint him or, if it did, it was the last time this agent would call. That’s why he’d entrusted this specific element to his most trusted agent, one who’d proven his loyalty and devotion, one who’d never disappointed him in the past and appreciated the consequences. There was nothing Steele liked more than hearing how his meticulous details fell into place, music to his ears, moving ever closer, however methodically, to his ultimate goal, if not beyond. What was the point in life if you couldn’t control everybody whose purpose was to make your world perfect?

The CEO’s private jet was closing in on its destination – London, first – with some important business he needed to attend to before following through with the next phase of his ingenious plan. A successful mission tonight, he knew, meant a successful mission next week, one success building toward even greater success. Like a well-oiled machine, everything needed to proceed smoothly and on schedule, risking nothing with even the slightest misfire: everyone understood, like faulty parts in that machine, they could be replaced.

What was the point of using “human resources,” like wood or coal, if you couldn’t dispose of the ashes? Loyal and enthusiastic workers were the fuel that made his company sing. (Hah – sing! That always cracked him up since SHMRG was, after all, the greatest music conglomerate on the planet.) But once they'd ended up burning themselves out after doing their best, there were more to take their place, an unending fuel supply willing to sacrifice themselves to his greater good.

It was the natural way, he protested, looking at bees and ants. Why should humans think they’re any different? Weren’t cities just human hives? (Ignore the fact they’re ruled by queens.) This was how he intended to become the 1% of the 1%, by trampling down everyone else, his competition.

And everyone understood that Steele’s well-being was, without doubt, the Greater Good. That was how they showed their gratitude, these dedicated workers of his, winning his favor in return for goals accomplished. Wasn’t that his right for being the source of their very lives, the genius that makes their lives worthwhile? Few understood this more unfailingly than the agent whose fully secure number now appeared on his equally secure phone. Steele closed his eyes, leaning back, smiling, as he opened the line.

At the end of the day, when the final bell has rung, nothing satisfied more than hearing success’s confirmation. The daily tallies were important, yes, but never forget the Big Picture. The ticker tape telling you your numbers have soared is one thing, but victory behind the scenes is another.

The heavy breathing he heard spoke volumes – slow, steady, resonant, even malevolent – not one who’s ill or out of breath. Yes, he knew the man was powerful, why he still employed him. Yes, he knew the man was diligent, above all loyal, why he’d put him in charge of this project.

And yes, the importance of the news was in direct opposition to the time it took to impart it.

“Did you find it?”


“And did you leave the message?”


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

Our flight to Munich proved uneventful, a few pockets of turbulence aside, years since I’d last been on a plane, Cameron’s presence helpful in getting me through various anxieties along the way. The train to Kempten was ready to depart just as we boarded, and we got the last two seats. I simply wanted to be an ordinary man enjoying an ordinary train-ride traveling southwest from Munich at the start of the summer festival season, planning a stay of a few weeks.

Still, it gnawed at me that Det. Phil Noir proved unsuccessful in getting any closer to solving Rob’s murder, as if dealing with his death wasn’t difficult enough, seeing that face… Plus, there’s my curiosity awaiting D’Arcy’s explanation of that photo Rob sent us, the very last thing he’d done.

The news of Rob’s murder had been difficult for the Schweinwald community, so unexpected, so terribly incomprehensible, so badly timed, especially so soon after the death of their previous director, Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist. They’d planned a memorial service for the festival’s second day, including the first on-stage rehearsal of his opera’s prologue. D’Arcy decided to go ahead with the premiere, performing it “as is,” an unfinished torso without the final act, hoping perhaps later it could be found or reconstructed in some way.

Cameron and I did our best, along with Drummoyne, to help LauraLynn with funeral arrangements and a small private service for family and friends, most of whom were unable to come. Rob wanted to be cremated, only recently deciding he wanted his ashes scattered to the winds at Castle Schweinwald. The next day, she left for Europe with his ashes, stopping first in London to settle some business with her foundation, then arriving in Munich only a day before we did.

To my surprise, LauraLynn made all arrangements, taking care of our plane tickets, mapping out the connection with the train, even reserving a cab that would take us to the Festspielhaus. With any luck we would arrive in time for dinner and a chance to talk before the curtain time.

We rolled along, climbing gradually into the Alpine foothills of the Allgäu. I could understand why Rob loved it here, even though it would have been more beautiful on a sunny day. Perhaps the weather would clear before LauraLynn went to spread Rob's ashes. The countryside continued gliding past as I found myself unable to focus, but if space, like time, induces forgetfulness, there were too many disquieting things I found myself unable to ignore.

Since I usually didn’t travel well, would I make it through tonight’s opening performance of The Barber of Seville, or should I wait till tomorrow night’s concert with Rob’s Faust songs? A light supper, perhaps just soup, would be best, given my appetite: Cameron could eat enough for us both.

We had both been dozing off when Cameron’s phone began its familiar buzz indicating someone was sending him a message. He woke me up immediately, showing me a text from Robertson Sullivan. Receiving the photo after he’d died was one thing, but a week later? Cameron was cursing his phone’s slowness.

“Looks like I’ll need your help,” it read. “Let’s meet at the hotel restaurant once you arrive in Schweinwald.”

“What…?” D’Arcy had already made these arrangements. “So, what’s this all about?”

“Hey,” Cameron said, poking me in the ribs, “isn’t that Lionel Roth back there? What’s he doing on this train?” His disappearance from Benninghurst before the police arrived had looked very suspicious.

“I can’t believe the police bought that crap about him being clairvoyant when they finally caught up with him.” It was bad enough that Bluetooth he’d left behind at his table turned out to be one of those infomercial devices enabling you to listen to conversations from across a room.

They’d located Dhabbodhú’s home, too, a brownstone on the Upper West Side, except Noir said no one answered the door and none of the neighbors reported seeing him for several weeks. The out-going message on his answering machine also said he'd be doing some consulting in Europe for the summer.

While the train stopped briefly at Kaufbeuren, Cameron and I ambled back the aisle and paused at Roth’s seat.

“Why, Mr. Roth, isn’t it? From the dinner at Benninghurst, last week…”

He looked up with a glimmer of recognition.

“Ironic,” I added, “running into each other so soon, here in Germany...?”

“Yes, that was very stressful,” he said, burying his head in a paperback edition of something called Ocean Steamships. “My therapist suggested that staying with friends here could improve my nerves.”

An old man hoping for a quick drag despite Bavaria’s strict anti-smoking laws, Roth’s seat-mate pulled out a cigarette lighter when Roth grabbed his arm, brandishing a plastic spork against his neck.

“No,” Roth hissed, “don’t do that, you’ll blow up the entire train!”

Cameron helped Roth confiscating the man's cigarette.

“Arthur Lemm has filled this train with gas that will explode when ignited. He is out to kill me!” As we left, Roth continued prodding the frightened man with his spork.

“Look, a few rows behind where Roth is sitting: isn’t that Dhabbodhú?” The man gazed out the window impassively.

Cameron looked, assuming it was somebody else, older and not as bulky.

“Don’t stare at him, Cameron – like I need some incident on a train with a big guy like that.”

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

The steady drizzle that began at Aitrang stopped once we arrived at Kempten and met the cab reserved for us, Roth and the big guy behind him both getting off there, also. Without a backward glance, we pulled away from the station and soon found ourselves speeding north on the A7. The driver, beyond telling us it would be another half hour or so before we’d arrive at the Festspielhaus, was not very talkative, listening to Wagner’s Meistersinger Prelude on the radio.

Just beyond Wolfertschwenden, he pointed toward the dark, pine-covered hills in front of us and intoned, “Wilkommen aus Schweinwald.”

“We’re here, already?”

“Nein, nein… we enter now the forest called Schweinwald.”

The Kneippstrasse cut across the hill, after two sharp switchbacks descending into a broad valley of fields and farmland.

If that was the Schweinwald, it didn’t seem very impressive, I thought, but the driver pointed out the larger clump of hills rising across the valley was also part of the forest, the hills more massive, the trees darker, no doubt a suitably ominous home for a suitably decrepit haunted castle.

Then we saw the collision just beyond the base of the hill, someone not far in front of us hit broadside by a van running the intersection on the Böhen road.

There was not much we could do but wait while each driver, blaming the other, gesticulated in wild semaphores, waiting impatiently for the police who arrived and eventually cleared the roadway.

After giving our statements as witnesses, we were finally allowed to pass, continuing to our destination a half-hour late.

“Wilkommen aus Fricken,” the driver said.

“Welcome to frickin’ what?” Cameron wondered. Had we been going even slightly faster coming off that hill, that could have been us in that accident.

With the hotel right across the street, the Festspielhaus was brightly lit against the evening sky on our right, its symmetrical twin domes-within-domes a dissected brain just as Rob described it.

A bulky man in a shabby trenchcoat, a dark bandana over his head, stepped out in front of us.

Recuperating from our second near-accident in thirty minutes, we carried our luggage into the brilliantly lit lobby of Hotel Schweinwald, a modern attempt to recapture the grandeur of the Golden Age resorts.

“I swear that guy looked like Dhabbodhú,” I muttered under my breath.

“It was just some bum,” Cameron said.

We checked in, got our keys and turned our suitcases over to an elderly porter who disappeared with them as we were met by two tall, husky men – security, no doubt.

The younger of them, dark hair slightly graying, introduced himself as V.C. D’Arcy, Acting Director of the Schweinwald Festival. The older-looking blonde was Captain Samuel Schäufel, the head of Festival Security.

“We’re sorry for the accident’s delay – at least, no one was hurt,” D’Arcy started off with efficient, apologetic formality.

“Unfortunately,” his colleague added, “it has not left us much time, also.” He motioned toward the restaurant, Das goldene Hirsch.

“The Golden Brain?” Cameron asked.

D’Arcy chuckled. “That would be Goldene Hirn.”

“Golden Stag, then,” I countered. “After Bartók?”

“If there were seven of them. This is an ancient local legend.”

I poked Cameron’s arm: sitting in the far corner was the large man from the train, the Dhabbodhú look-alike.

“You’re really getting paranoid,” Cameron whispered, snickering. “You’re seeing him everywhere, boss.”

“So,” I started as we approached the salad bar, “you texted something about needing our help once we had arrived.”

“Help?” D’Arcy sounded confused. “I don’t recall texting you about any ‘help’…”

“No, remember?” Cameron showed me the text. “That came from Rob’s phone.”

“Rob Sullivan’s phone? How is that possible?”

Schäufel took a hurried look at it. “That is what it says: sent earlier today. Look, another one’s arrived.”

“Glad you arrived safely, Richard,” it read. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

I glanced at the large man in the corner, a knife and fork in each hand, but no phone.

“Well, it’s not from Rob,” I confirmed. “He always called me Terry.”

“Obviously,” D’Arcy agreed, his brow slightly furrowed.

Then another text arrived: “Now you must help me find the fountain.”

We looked cautiously around as if scanning the salad bar, patrons behind us coughing nervously to get us to move. The place was not very full since the opera would soon begin.

“Whoever’s sending these must be watching us,” I said. But the large man in the corner continued to eat.

“But who would have Rob’s phone,” D’Arcy added cautiously, “except… Rob’s killer…?”

“I’m not so sure I like this…”

“Not the vacation you imagined?” Cameron added, showing me the latest text.

“Soon you will have information for me,” the text read, “but finding me now will be a useless precaution. I will contact you later once you have important news for me.”

“Useless precaution? That’s The Barber of Seville’s alternate title,” D’Arcy pointed out. “Apparently, he’s here at the opera, tonight.”

“And what does he mean, ‘important news’?” I wondered. “Information about what?!”

“Clearly, he’s where he can see us.”

“The killer’s here, watching us…?” I felt my knees begin to shake.

There was a muffled scream in the distance and everyone instinctively turned around to face the restaurant’s front window which looked across to the Festspielhaus and the plaza with its fountain.

People were milling excitedly around the fountain though we couldn’t see why.

Captain Schäufel immediately called in his men.

While Schäufel watched his agents arriving at the fountain, Cameron decided to check his Facebook page for any recent up-dates, something he probably hadn’t done since we got out of the cab.

“Hah,” he said, showing me his phone, “somebody’s posted a photo of some bum who fell in a fountain.”

“What people do when they have so little to occupy their minds. But you have to admit,” I joked, “it is kind of funny, judging from everybody’s reactions, including the bum’s.”

However, he and I realized, looking up from the phone, it was the very fountain in front of us, the one that stood centered directly in front of the Schweinwald Festspielhaus!

Schäufel got off his phone to report that apparently some bum just fell in the fountain and started cursing.

Looking more closely at Cameron’s photo, I was convinced that this was the same guy who’d crossed the street in front of us when we first arrived and flipped us the bird.

“Bird?” Schäufel said, looking at us quizzically.

“Wait, you can see him from here?” D’Arcy craned his neck further.

Then Cameron showed him the phone. “See? It’s already been posted on-line.”

“Couldn’t that be Dhabbodhú? With a bandana?”

“Wow, you really are seeing him everywhere!” Cameron flipped the phone closed.

By the time we got to the fountain, the guy already dubbed “BandanaMan” on the internet had shuffled off, the security agents a little vague about his identity and exact whereabouts. A trail of sopping wet foot prints dragged themselves off to the new Concert Hall wing, not yet opened.

“A witness said he was on his cell-phone,” Agent Barbara Seville reported.

“Did he drop the phone?” D’Arcy shouted.

Schäufel ordered two agents into the fountain to look for the phone.

Another agent, sounding up-beat, explained he’d asked the man if he’d use the men’s room in the concert hall so as not to annoy any patrons over in the opera house.

“What were you thinking, Arabesk?” Schäufel berated the crest-fallen, would-be helpful agent. “You idiot, he could be a terrorist!”

D’Arcy pulled me back between the two separate wings of the Festspielhaus, rising like symmetrical arches joined at the center, the opera house on our right, the concert hall on the left. Standing beneath an old statue of Beethoven, we watched the crowd, nothing in particular unfolding in front of us. Most people looked around wondering what all the sudden fuss was about: who cared if he dropped a cell-phone? He was a bum, he fell into the fountain, no big deal.

“You know, that photo Rob sent us,” D’Arcy began, glancing around cautiously, “I wanted to explain its significance but didn’t want to use e-mail or a phone that... someone could intercept. Right beneath where we’re standing, now, some workmen discovered an old crypt which they told Franz-Dieter and Rob about…”

“Yes, I’ve been thinking about that photo, too,” I said, interrupting him, “considering these new texts I’ve suddenly been getting. If Rob didn’t send it, doesn’t that mean the killer must have?” Considering possibilities best left unconsidered, I said, “He’s obviously after something: what, I wonder, does he think I know?”

“What a coincidence you and the killer are both here,” D’Arcy admitted, “in Schweinwald at the exact same moment!”

“So why did he kill Rob and Zeitgeist?”

“Wait,” he said, “Franz-Dieter...?”

= = = = = = =
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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