Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 6

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, N. Ron Steele, the CEO of SHMRG, is relaxing in-flight between New York and London on his way to Munich. He receives a reassuring message. After their own trip to Munich, Dr. Kerr and Cameron have boarded the train for Schweinwald when they receive another text message from Rob Sullivan's phone. Also on the train are Lionel Roth (whom they'd last seen at Benninghurst) and a man Kerr thinks looks like Dr. Dhabbodhú in disguise. Taking a cab from the train station to the opera house, Kerr and Cameron are delayed by a traffic accident. V.C. D'Arcy and Captain Schäufel meet them for dinner as another text message comes in from Rob Sullivan's phone. A bum falls into the fountain in front of the opera house. D'Arcy is surprised to find out that Zeitgeist's death was not an accident.
= = = = = = =


Fortunately, the brief stop in London had broken up the long flight back from New York, lessening the ‘travel fatigue,’ a few hours of tedious discussion with various people about various things. There were so many more details to attend to, with Rob gone, but fortunately most people understood her mood. She hated the term “jet lag.” It never mattered what direction she’d gone, it always took a while for her body to catch up with reality; and her brain, longer still.

Virgil D’Arcy, the festival’s acting director, had been very understanding in suggesting she use one of the private cottages on the edge of the Festspielhaus “campus” usually reserved for guest artists, rather than the commotion of the hotel where people would gawk at her, asking all sorts of intrusive questions.

Oh, above all, she thought, it was the questions she wanted to avoid: the less she thought about Robertson’s death, the better it would be for her, bringing it back to mind, still slow to heal after the shock of discovering the body – especially, that body – and it will take time.

The long warm bath had helped ease her nerves and maybe, after a late afternoon nap, she’d feel relaxed. Once the weather cleared, she'd take Rob's ashes out to that castle...

When the house phone rang, it annoyed her – she'd asked them not to let any calls through to disturb her – so she figured this must be D’Arcy on official Festival business. Even after asking London to hold her calls, she realized she could still get personal calls on her cell-phone.

But the voice, apologetic for disturbing her, was unfamiliar and she was tempted to hang up. He sounded nice enough, pleasantly engaging and sincere – British – but the timing was all wrong.

He introduced himself as Rothbart Girdlestone – so obviously British, with a name like that – and he hated bringing up business on so sad an occasion but he had come from England only because just last week Mr. Sullivan had texted him, suggesting that he come to Schweinwald for opening night.

“So you see, I am in town only because Mr. Sullivan agreed to give – or rather, loan – me something he’d found and I’ve only heard of his unfortunate death once I arrived.”

It was regrettable, LauraLynn apologized, she’d never heard Rob mention him but then she’d only arrived hours before he...

“Should you have any doubts about the veracity of my statement,” he added courteously, “I’m sure you could check on his mobile to find the out-going text amongst his sent files.”

She winced as he continued, explaining he was a musicologist specializing in 19th Century German marginalia, as he described those once-famous composers now lurking only in the footnotes of history books.

“It was to be part of the year-long celebration as Schweinwald, becoming a full-time institution, re-opening the once-famous Academy.”

She knew the “document” he referred to, an old family heirloom the Hartys had hung on to for no apparent reason since no one ever basically thought it could have any value. When Rob asked his mother for it after becoming involved at Schweinwald, she was glad to dispose of it. It was her Grandfather Harrison’s journal when he attended Schweinwald in 1880 but it was almost entirely in code.

Not sure how to proceed, she agreed to meet before the opera.

They used to joke about her grandmother’s favorite painting, a horrible old still life she’d given them which they got out only when she’d visit, then hide it back in the attic. Throwing it out after she died, LauraLynn was horrified when an antique dealer said it was worth a fortune!

She felt badly, annoyed at Rob for making arrangements about something still belonging to the family without consulting her, bringing tears to her eyes as she sat back down and wept.

Considering his murderer was still at large and the police seemed unable to come up with any viable suspects – despite what Terry Kerr had been talking about that night at Benninghurst – dealing with Harrison Harty’s notebook was hardly a top priority right now, haunted by the image of that face.

And speaking of Terry Kerr, she wondered why entrust this journal, whatever its value might be, to a total stranger? Who was Rothbart Girdlestone, expert musicologist, in the greater scheme of things? Was he an old family friend or just someone who could profit from a treasure found in an attic?

If anybody could figure it out, certainly Terry could, she thought: he was always good with obscure puzzles, fascinated by what she considered musical trivia. And Rob owed him that much.

Perhaps Dr. Girdlestone was too eager; maybe – like that antique dealer – he really would know the journal’s true worth. Quite possibly, Rob had only agreed to meet him to appraise it. He might want to discuss the possibilities, consider where things stood, get another opinion – Terry’s, most likely – then see.

Could Girdlestone be using Rob’s death to procure the journal instead, though the evidence would be on Rob’s phone which Girdlestone, having just heard the awful news, wouldn’t know was missing.

But there would not be much time for haggling: she would meet, they would “discuss further” and then she would make a decision, after getting Terry’s opinion – how urgent was it? Why should she miss the “Blessing of the Waters” or be late for the opening curtain? This could wait.

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

It had been a dark and stormy afternoon at old Castle Schweinwald, a passing summer thunderstorm leaving the air tingling, charged with anticipation after breaking the humidity that shrouded its silent forest, its grim heap of stones long since fallen into rack and ruin glistening in the dampness of tattered rainclouds. There was sadness seeping from these stones, the disappointment of ages past reflecting glories long since idle and forgotten, like some ancient pensioner shuffled off, sitting decrepit, waiting for the end.

Putting his phone away, a big man in a light brown suit, burly and tanned, incongruously healthy by comparison, stood looking out the doorway of the castle onto its tumbledown courtyard, scanning down the long, unkempt drive covered with weeds and littered with the shattered branches of numerous long-dead trees.

“Nothing,” he thinks, peering, listening quietly, “a minor stumble, no matter, regardless,” turning, closing the heavy oaken door behind him. “Perhaps the good Dr. Girdlestone needs to be more suave,” he adds. His evil laugh reverberates through hollow rooms as he descends the steps deep into the heart of his enterprise.

“I am sure, when next we shall meet the beauteous Ms. Harty, the good doctor will be most convincing, needing little encouragement for her to yield to his expert, gentlemanly persuasions.”

The winding steps, once past the secret passageway, were steep and narrow, clinging to bare stone walls, spiraling down, deep into a cavernous room at the base of the dilapidated tower. “It feels good to laugh,” he thought, and so he laughed again, louder with a wider range cascading lower. A flock of ravens roosting on the tower’s battlements – like crows, he wondered, would that be called a ‘murder’? – startled by the echoes, abruptly took off, wheeling out across the forest.

With steps so narrow, the fall precipitous should he lose his footing, the big man needed to walk sideways even though he could run them in the dark if absolutely necessary.

“I am Tr’iTone, soon to be the Greatest Composer Who Ever Lived,” he bellowed once he reached the dungeon.

The faintest creak of a door, the slightest whimper of a squeak as an echo faded into shreds of fragments, alerted Tr’iTone – who had very delicate hearing – he was no longer alone.

“Ah, Mr. Roth, you have arrived,” he said, greeting his invisible guest. “You’re late, unfortunately, but no matter – really.”

Slowly, the diminutive figure of Lionel Roth, scared out of his wits, appeared at the top of the steps, unsteady and stammering out a brief apology about a reluctant cab driver.

“Never mind, Mr. Roth. Did you bring it?” Tr’iTone looked up as Roth awkwardly stepped out onto the landing.

“Yes, Dr. Dhabbodhú,” he squeaked, drawing a letter tentatively from his pocket.

“Good,” the big man said, smiling. “No reason to bring it down now. You can just let it drop.”
Greatly relieved, Lionel Roth took the letter and cautiously let it go, afraid to look down and watch its progress. It seemed to take forever, wafting downwards while drifting back and forth.

Picking it up gently and examining it, Tr’iTone – or rather Dr. Dhabbodhú – slipped it carefully into his inside pocket.

“Thank you, Mr. Roth. If you’d like to go for a walk, please be careful in the forest, though: no one will ever find you if you fall in a ravine.”

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

“I didn’t want to mention it in e-mail, either,” I told D’Arcy, standing there with his mouth hanging wide open, “but Rob started saying he didn’t think Zeitgeist’s death was an accident, how Franz-Dieter mentioned there’d been some threats, but then they never had a chance to talk about it further.” I guess I'd caught him by surprise because he just continued looking at me before slowly closing his jaw. Maybe I’d said too much and should keep my own mouth shut.

“So, you think – or rather, you’re saying Rob thought – Franz-Dieter was killed and that the two murders are related?” D’Arcy wiped his hand down over his face, pondering this stunning revelation.

Having gathered several slips of paper from his agents, Captain Schäufel wandered up to us, looking a bit distracted.

Checking his notes, Schäufel said, “a German thought the guy sounded French but a Frenchman argued he was definitely Russian. An American thought the guy was obviously Portuguese but couldn’t explain why. An English dowager wrinkling up her nose didn’t care where he was from so long as he stayed there. A Dutch woman thought he might be a gypsy – you know, Roma? (Or did she mean he's from Italy?) If we wait long enough, someone’s bound to think he’s an Arab.”

D’Arcy waved him away with a nod and turned back to me, wondering what might be the common thread. Franz-Dieter did seem distracted before he left for his vacation, he recalled.

Mentioning nothing about the stolen CD-rom with the completed score, I said, “somebody wants to stop the opera’s premiere.”

“But the police report we received,” he said, “made it sound like a random killing, gruesome as it was.”

“Unfortunately, their detective is like a black-and-white film in a 3-D age.”

Captain Schäufel shuffled back toward us, saying a witness saw one of the security guards escorting a very wet man fitting the Bandana-Man’s description up to the concert hall’s main entrance.

“We know that, you fool! Arabesk told us! Why was it unlocked?”

“You’d given the TV crew a tour…”

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

After Cameron finished talking with Dr. Kerr and some officers, after Kerr and D’Arcy walked over to the Beethoven statue – a very large and very old-looking statue for so new a building – he sat on the fountain’s broad rim, looking off toward the woods when he decided he’d take a picture. It would make a dramatic sunset, the sky clearing after the rain; his pic turned out better than hoped. Posting it on Facebook, he discovered someone tagged him in another photo.

A shot of him talking to Schäufel, two witnesses pointing off in opposite directions, already received two dozen ‘likes.’

A young woman beside him asked why this bum was so interesting.

“Uhmm, where did you come from?” Cameron looked at her quizzically.

“What makes you think he was texting you?”

“Uhmmm, what…? how…?” Cameron stammers at her while she adjusted the device in her ear, then punched into her cell-phone and Cameron received a Facebook friend request from someone named Fictitia LaMouche.

According to the profile picture, it’s the attractive young woman now sitting beside him on the fountain. He accepts.

Her profile says she’s a reporter for a British on-line arts magazine and she’s posted something to his wall:

“So, why would you think you’re getting texted by some dead dude?”

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

“Ach, it is so difficult, yes? not to get lost around here with all the construction,” the old woman said, looking around in confusion, making delicate gestures with her elegantly gloved hands. She was exquisitely dressed in gray and black, her gloves silver, her face largely covered with a heavy veil. Big-boned and walking with an unsteady stoop, she continued, having gotten lost just trying to find the lady’s room to freshen up a bit before the opera. “Opening night – so exciting!”

Schäufel was trying to catch his breath after running into the lobby, looking for a large wet bum when he found this woman who described herself as “a poor old widow.”

“Well, not poor, exactly,” she smiled. “I have given much money to the festival after my dear husband died.”

Panting uncomfortably and swearing to himself he was going to have to start watching his diet, Schäufel asked her if she’d seen a large man, swarthy and shabbily dressed, also soaking wet.

She noticed the trail of footprints leading over to the rest rooms and shook her head. “No, I’m sorry.”

Introducing herself as Claire Güllendorf, she asked, “You are not, I hope, having the heart attack, young man? You must learn not to exert yourself as you age, so much.”

Schäufel, trying to hide his impatience from her – meanwhile, Bandana-Man was getting further away – brusquely introduced himself in return.

“Teufel, you say? What an unfortunate name,” she tutted, shaking her head. “Ach, Schäufel, I’m sorry,” she apologized, a gloved hand at her ear. “It does get worse as you get older.”

He hated when his men called him “Schäufel der Teufel” behind his back despite their sense of justifiable awe, seeing him as a devil striking fear in the hearts of criminals.

Apologizing the concert hall wouldn’t open till September, he unlocked a construction door leading back to the opera house. The old woman hobbled off, giving a friendly wave as she disappeared.

He quickly followed the wet tracks to... wait a minute, to the ladies' room – where they came full stop!

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

“There’s something else you need to know, then, Dr. Kerr,” D’Arcy continued once Schäufel ran off to the concert wing to look for the wet bum who just might be their killer (he was still wondering why no one bothered looking for him in the men’s room in the first place). “Last summer, as I started telling you, construction workers unearthed a crypt almost directly under where we’re now standing and when they took Franz-Dieter down to show him, Rob tagged along.”

There was a certain uncomfortable tone I noticed in D’Arcy’s mentioning this, as if disapproving of Rob’s insider status, disappointed perhaps that he hadn’t been invited to join his boss, instead. Rob may have been the Associate Director for the New Music Festival but D’Arcy was, after all, Zeitgeist’s assistant.

D’Arcy explained to me, pointing here and there, how the Festspielhaus was built where the old Falkenstein farmhouse once stood, already in ruins before it had been bombed in World War II. The chapel once stood here, the site of a 13th Century monastery, which might explain this hallway they’d unearthed.

“Rob could barely budge this ancient-looking door they assumed was still sealed. Then effortlessly, like a delayed reaction, Rob said, the door creaked open, cool air escaping like a dying breath.

“Neither of them said what they found inside the crypt, nothing more than one small ‘artifact,’ he called it: otherwise, the room was empty – not much of a crypt, I guess. Then they decided to dismantle the door, hauling it upstairs for the library or maybe some future museum room.”

“What happened to the artifact?” I asked.

“Not a clue,” D’Arcy said. “All I know is Zeitgeist had it.”

“He never showed it to you or described it?” That seemed odd.

“Rob only ever showed me the picture he’d taken of the door which I couldn’t make out too clearly. It didn’t make any sense at the time, but he told me, ‘Well, it has my friend Terry Kerr’s name all over it. I can’t wait to show it to him!’”

It began sounding like a variation on the mummy’s curse and I told D’Arcy maybe it was just as well he hadn’t been there, considering both Rob and Franz-Dieter had been murdered.

“I hadn’t thought of it, that way,” he said, “if, as you think, Franz-Dieter’s death really wasn’t an accident.”

“If there’s nothing left in the crypt, perhaps we should go up and take a look through Rob’s office, see if there’s any ‘artifact’ there that might be worth killing over.”

“Well, there’s something else you should know which I didn’t realize before, considering what you’ve said gives it perspective: Zeitgeist’s office had been trashed by someone a day before he died.”

Security was in the process of installing a new system then, meaning they didn’t catch the intruder on film.

“But there’s more. Unfortunately, the surveillance cameras still aren’t operational but someone used Rob’s key-card to access the building overnight. The cleaning lady noticed Rob’s office had been searched, papers piled everywhere.”

Was the killer still searching for whatever he didn’t find at Benninghurst? Had the same person ransacked both offices?

“But the text message said he needed my help locating a fountain.”

“True, the artifact wouldn’t be a fountain.”

“Any idea,” I asked, “what fountain is it, exactly, he’s searching for…?”

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

D’Arcy and his American guest – “isn’t he that friend of Sullivan’s?” Officer Barbara Seville asked – started moving toward the Festspielhaus, including the young man by the fountain – “wait till Mobilé sees him! He’s getting talked up by that annoying internet journalist – and I use the term loosely – the one called LaMouche.”

Schäufel joined them, followed by Officer Donna Mobilé, returning from the concert hall carrying what looked like a pile of soggy clothes, including a scruffy old trenchcoat, work boots and pants.

Mobilé reported to Dispatcher Agitato these were in the lady’s room, but with no sign of any naked man.

“Ah, no,” Schäufel sighed, “but our alleged vagrant is apparently a master of disguise, as there is a large old woman in gray and black whom I met in the lobby…”

Fortunately, Dispatcher Preston Agitato squelched the connection before any other officers could catch the laughter from inside the security trailer.

“So much for ‘Schäufel der Teufel,’” hooted someone at the far end.

“Sordino,” the dispatcher hollered, “stick a mute in it!” But they could barely control themselves in their cramped quarters.

“No sense draining the fountain for that cell-phone,” Officer Tom LeVay reported, trying to catch his breath between laughs. “Looking at the footage in slo-mo playback – see? He never dropped it.”

Though the security trailer was uncomfortably tight, they knew their eventual move, once the new concert hall wing opened, would be a huge improvement not just in terms of available space. With any luck, all the new security cameras they’d recently installed inside the main buildings would be operational, too.

“Hey, there’s Schäufel’s old lady,” Sordino said, “She must’ve gotten lost – she’s nowhere near the opera house lobby entrance.”

In fact, if anything, she was headed toward the underground parking garage.

Suddenly, an unruly mob burst out from a side door, dozens of dancing children dressed in quaint folk costumes, immediately engulfing the old lady, helpless and befuddled, in their relentless surge.

Jostled about and turned around, barely hanging on to her wig, she now headed further into the building’s interior.

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

She was thinking the guy was kind of cool if not exactly hot, but certainly cute and definitely very sweet compared to most of the clods she’d ever met in her life. Unfortunately, then he introduced her to his boss, this professor named Kerr, some old fuddy-duddy he was helping out. But the good news was, he was a good friend of Robertson Sullivan’s, so whatever he was here for, perhaps it might lead to a scoop about the new director’s murder!

The bad news was, Rat Bastard Schäufel wouldn’t let her tag along, something about looking for some old artifact. And what was this bum texting on his cell-phone all about, anyway?

“Young lady,” Schäufel said, wagging his finger, “forget everything you’ve heard here: you could be in very grave danger.”

Pouting at being treated like she was a little child, Fictitia turned to face Barry Scarpia, the festival’s board president, holding out a cup of Stirnhirschen’s special-blend coffee she liked so much.

“Good evening, Fictitia. You’ve decided to take in the opera after all?”

“I’m covering the event, not reviewing it.”

“Pity – you should let me take you inside: you would enjoy it.”

Sipping her coffee contentedly, she didn’t respond.

“Didn’t I just see Mr. D’Arcy here? He’s missed his pre-broadcast interview.”

Scarpia offered her his hand and led her away from the fountain where the crowd started reaching its peak, a steady flow of eager tourists awaiting a beloved opening night tradition.

“What’s D’Arcy up to that’s so important?”

“Oh, he and some Americans are looking for… something weird,” she hesitated.

Remembering Cameron’s odd comments, Fictitia wanted to get away before letting slip anything about artifacts and dead men texting.

“So, what’s the news about that bum? Certainly did get Security buzzing.”

It amused her someone so mainstream as Scarpia followed her on Twitter. She thanked him for the coffee and then started wandering away: “work to do – I’m here to ‘cover.’ Ta.”

The local bishop arrived at the fountain for the “Blessing of the Waters” as Scarpia fantasized about “covering” Fictitia.

Scarpia’s phone buzzed. The call started with heavy breathing (“ah, another obscene call – excellent!”) before a reverberant voice intoned: “Dostig ya vishye vlasti.” (1)

Scarpia responded, “La ci darem la mano.” (2)

The caller gave him an important message and Scarpia said, “They still plan to move forward tomorrow… Yes, whatever it takes.”

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

In an air-conditioning duct deep beneath the Festspielhaus, a large man, tired and wheezing, put his phone away, wondering how much longer he can keep going in this line of work.

There had been that guy he ran into back when he killed Sullivan. “That hurt my shoulder pretty badly. I must be getting soft, though. Ordinarily I would’ve just plugged the bastard but I hesitated and he got away.”

But there’s work to be done: no rest for the wicked.

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

N. Ron Steele, comfortable aboard his private jet, soon to arrive at SHMRG’s Munich office, scowled, hanging up his phone. Everything had been going well, but success always breeds the inevitable mistrust.

It reminded him of 5th grade when William Cheatham double-crossed him on the playground and started bragging about it.

Turns out that safety deposit box in New York was empty, despite what that wimpy guy had told them.

“Well, maybe it’s time we pull a Willie Cheatham on this guy.”

= = = = = =
(1) "I have attained the highest power," Boris Godunov's aria from Mussorgsky's opera
(2) "Here, take my hand," the duet from Mozart's Don Giovanni

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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