Monday, October 20, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 9 (Part 1)

 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 is in Rob Sullivan's office at the Schweinwald Festspielhaus along with Cameron, V.C. D'Arcy and the festival's chief of security, looking for whatever they could find when he locates a headless bobble-head doll probably meant to be Mozart. They also meet the diminutive Yoda Leahy-Hu, Director of the International Music Police's Special Forces Unit who wonders what it is they've found. Cameron makes a dash for it, Kerr and D'Arcy run after him and then Leahy-Hu and her agents are off after them. It seems LauraLynn Sullivan is in the basement of the building, between the parking garage and the temporary location of the Library waiting to meet the musicologist Rothbart Girdlestone: something about the old Harrison Harty journal. Heidi Gedankgesang runs into someone waiting for LauraLynn but it doesn't quite go the way she'd planned.
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Chapter 9 (Part 1)

Trying to keep out of everybody else’s way, a whole crew of TV engineers swarmed the backstage of the Festspielhaus, quickly pulling cables into place, checking sight-lines and double-checking lights and headsets. The dress rehearsal had not gone well which was probably good news because everybody would be on their toes.

Werner Schmerzleid, the broadcast’s director, checked the timings with his assistant when guests should arrive, only hoping they would. His hostess, soprano Rita Pagliaccio, was finishing her make-up, ready to go.

“Don’t use too much pancake,” she warned, checking her profiles in the mirror, “or I’ll look like a clown.” One thing she hated was looking like some bozo in a gown.

“Ms. Pagliaccio, ready for your close-up,” the voice said through the intercom.

Ever the diva, she strode into place.

It had been years since the great Pagliaccio last sang in public, her adoring fans still abundant all across Europe – her farewell performance as Tosca in Munich brought the audience to tears – but she still knew how to work a camera and, standing tall, bring her full personality into the character. She blew the cute cameraman a kiss (unfortunately it was already on-air), welcoming viewers backstage for a delicious treat, this special broadcast of the opening night gala at the Schweinwald Festival.

Delighted to see she was ready to go, patiently waiting in place, the hostess warmly introduced her first guest, “one of the great stars of today’s opera world, mezzo-soprano Cora diLetto.”

Already in costume, Cora waved to the camera, tugging at her ear, thrilled to be backstage for the interview.

“Thank you. It’s so wonderful to be able to share the stage with the Divine Miss Rita,” she bubbled.

“Oh, my gracious!” Pagliaccio laughed, fanning herself. “You had me at ‘divine’!

“Though you’re known for pants roles like Cherubino and Octavian where you pretend to be a boy,” Pagliaccio continued, quickly checking her notes, “tonight you’re ‘all girl’ as the quick-witted Rosina.”

“One of the great things about making a living being a liar!”

(The camera fully caught Pagliaccio’s arching eyebrows.)

DiLetto continued how one night she could lie about having a bad day while playing a comic character or dying a tragic suicide another night while feeling perfectly content with the world.

“The whole trick is to lie so convincingly, the audience believes everything you do or say – I mean, sing!”

“And what is it you’re lying about, tonight?” Pagliaccio asked, shoving the mic into her face. “Anything in particular?”

“I’m a little nervous, given the occasion, and Rosina is very confident...”

DiLetto asked her if she weren’t a little bit nervous before going on-stage herself, even in a familiar role, but Pagliaccio, extremely self-confident, said she’d never really thought about it before.

Looking over to the side and seeing no more guests lined up there, she began thinking about it now.

She continued asking diLetto about favorite roles, new recordings and future plans – meanwhile extremely aware how much she missed someone asking her these questions – when her guest politely excused herself to 'prepare.'

Then, stepping aside for a view of the busy preparations on the stage, Pagliaccio announced they would return shortly.

Off-camera, the director handed her a list of topics she could mention when the stage-manager’s voice went out on-air, “Check the long shot for that fucking anvil in the first finale!”

Reluctantly, Rita Pagliaccio stepped back before the camera, prepared to do something she never did on stage before – wing it – mentioning how she hoped to talk with the festival’s acting director soon and with the legendary maestro, Luigi Maéstro, whom she fondly remembers from his conducting her debut many years ago.

She peered anxiously at the director’s notes, everything becoming a hopeless blur since she wasn’t wearing her reading glasses, then looked around helplessly, knowing she still had fifteen minutes to fill.

Suddenly she just stomped off, muttering curses that would’ve aroused Mephistopheles’ admiration, running headlong into Cameron who, having managed to escape from Schäufel and the two IMP agents, was hiding backstage. She tossed him the notes, stuffed the microphone in his hand and pushed him in front of the camera.

Standing like a deer in headlights and realizing being on nationwide TV was not the best place to be hiding, Cameron glanced down at the notes, turned them right-side-up, and swallowed nervously. After a deep breath, he launched into his best high-school German delivery, Schmerzleid burying his head in his hands.

“This fall, Schweinwald will a whole new chapter in its history begin, when the new building, to the beautiful Festspielhaus a mirror with its halls for symphonic and chamber music, opens.”

His sing-song delivery and misplaced emphases, plus the fact he often had no idea what he was actually reading, made it difficult to understand, people watching the monitors stopping to laugh. He mentioned tomorrow morning's rehearsal and the composers’ round-table with Peter Moonbeam then gave up on the next items.

“Sadly, there’s tomorrow’s memorial service for Robertson Sullivan, the composer, whose opera, Faustus, Inc., will this summer premiered be – he briefly as festival director following the death of Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist served.”

Cameron glanced up in time to see Schäufel and the two black-clad IMPs sneaking in behind the second cameraman. Shoving the mic at a stage-hand, he said “Your turn,” and fled.

“Remember,” Schmerzleid said to his speechless assistant, “if I ever agree to do live TV again, please shoot me.”

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

P.K. Arabesk and Tom LeVay, both recent graduates of the police academy who couldn’t find jobs with the local Landespolizei, were still acclimating themselves to the dull life of an arts festival. Here they were, patrolling a parking garage looking for a lost old lady like it was some terrorist alert. Maybe their boss, ‘Schäufel der Teufel,’ had finally lost it, cracking under the constant strain of nothing ever happening, even though the Festival lost two directors in little over a month.

“Not like any of that excitement happened anywhere near here,” Arabesk complained. “Zeitgeist wiped himself out on a ski slope in Austria and then Sullivan got murdered someplace in the States.”

“At least we’re prepared if any old ladies turn belligerent. What,” LeVay scoffed, “we’re issued one bullet between us?”

The radio crackled into existence. “Come in, Officer Arabesk. Any sign yet of the old lady,” Chief Dispatcher Agitato asked.

“No, sir,” he replied sheepishly. “Peeling our eyes as we speak, sir.”

“Do that,” Agitato replied. “Just remember, if you happen to see her, which one of you has the bullet.”

“Roger, that,” LeVay responded with due gravitas, rolling his eyes at Arabesk, carefully shutting off his radio before continuing. His partner nodded and did the same, hoping to avoid further embarrassment.

“Wasn’t it Agitato who had to deal with that little old lady last year, the one complaining how she didn’t get the seat she wanted for the last performance of Boheme?”

“Right – she ended up groining him with her cane when he escorted her away from the box office line.”

No wonder he was on dispatch now. It may be boring and safer – and he can sit down, too – but it does pay a little better than being on foot patrol.

“It’s not like Al-Qaida would target some opera house in the rural outback of Bavaria for any terrorist attack.” Arabesk surreptitiously checked his gun: “Yes, I’m the one with the bullet.”

“Not Barber of Seville. Now, Siege of Corinth or Turk in Italy, maybe,” LeVay nodded, “given their anti-Muslim stereotypes…”

Checking to make sure their two-way radios were off – this out-dated equipment always managed to make things more complicated – they laughed how Mobilé described Schäufel’s face when he saw BandanaMan’s wet clothes. The old guy, they agreed, was really beginning to slip: “What is he, now,” LeVay chuckled, “mid-forties or something?”

Arabesk asked if he’d noticed that list of names beside Mobilé’s phone.

“You mean all her ex-boyfriends?” LeVay snorted. “Can’t tell a player without a program. Still, she’s quite a knock-out…”

And if that wasn’t bad enough, they were all crammed into this tiny trailer, half their equipment malfunctioning daily, banished to the remote back parking lot, far from the main lobby. Of course, it was only temporary, until the new construction was done, but it could be a long summer.

It was the silver hair they saw sticking out of a trash dumpster around the corner from the lady’s room, alerting them to the problem. Fearing the worst, they drew their guns. While Arabesk quickly secured the immediate area, LeVay checked out the dumpster, hoping the old woman was still alive.

It turned out to be a wig; instead of a body, only the gloves and dress Schäufel had described.

LeVay hastily reported back to the security trailer, “We have a situation.”

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

She took a deep breath and tried looking confidently into the camera, imperceptibly nodding to resume the interrupted backstage broadcast, knowing that Rita Pagliaccio’s melt-down was assured a long life on YouTube. She knew she had to do better but was comforted by knowing it was unlikely she’d do any worse.

Elsa Poppen, Schmerzleid’s directorial assistant, smiled broadly and improvised an apology for the indisposition of the regularly scheduled host, knowing her boss was in the men’s room, heaving his guts out.

“Being backstage,” she continued, “it’s busy at the best of times but with an opening night gala, there’s so much going on, not just getting the stage ready for a performance. With any luck, there’s even a chance we’ll get to talk with the festival’s Acting Director, Mr. V.C. D’Arcy.”

Nodding at the cameraman to zoom in on the stage, the crew finishing with the last of the opening’s set, she wondered how she could direct and talk at the same time. If only she could remember more of the talking points D’Arcy and Schmerzleid went over at the earlier walk-through.

“The big news is the world premiere of Robertson Sullivan’s opera, Faustus, Inc., following the composer’s recent, tragic death. He had been so close to finishing the opera before he died...”

Looking around to see if anyone else scheduled for an interview before the performance might be hanging around nearby, Elsa, seeing nobody, decided to skip the gruesome details of Sullivan’s murder. “Only recently appointed the festival’s new director, Mr. Sullivan died weeks after the death of long-time director Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist. Sullivan's cousin, noted philanthropist LauraLynn Harty, is in attendance tonight and was originally scheduled to talk with us briefly but her schedule’s been very busy with preparations for tomorrow’s memorial service.”

She tried stepped back from the camera though the cameraman kept following her despite her brusquely shaking her head. Someone handed her a slip of paper she read with obvious relief.

“Let’s go now to the traditional ‘Blessing of the Waters’ held at the fountain in front of the Festspielhaus.”

Unfortunately by now, the plaza was too dark in steep shadows for much of the festivities to be seen clearly, the engineer arguing that the setting was the same as last year’s. Also, no one realized the new building now blocked the evening sunlight after money-saving decisions canceled seemingly unnecessary test-runs. It didn’t matter to most of the younger viewers since the picture’s grainy quality and out-of-focus forms dancing about were similar to many barely visible things they viewed regularly on YouTube.

The older viewers, assuming it was probably part of a low-budget home-made movie produced and acted by local students, hoped the nonsense would end soon so they could enjoy the opera. The reporter stood next to several pre-pubescent girls screaming over a Justin Bieber video they’d downloaded to their phones.

Several of the children were still laughing about the expression on that old woman’s face when she opened the door, finding herself nearly trampled by their mad dash toward the plaza entrance. They’d spun her about until she almost became part of their dance: it would’ve been funny, if she had.

The priest – a rotund baker playing a part – intoned a prayer thanking God for the art that inspires us and the children danced, singing nonsense rhymes the tourists thought perfectly quaint.

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

Officers Arabesk and LeVay meticulously described the remnants of the old lady they had discovered stuffed into a remote dumpster – her wig, the dress Schäufel described, even the shoes, but no body – until Officer Mobilé pointed out this was not a real old lady but apparently another of BandanaMan’s ingenious disguises. No one had any idea what this was all about, much less what disguise he might be wearing now: what was he up to and where did he go from here?

Officer Agitato interrupted them, telling them not to worry about it now: Schäufel had just phoned in for back-up, running down the stairwell from the Director’s office with several IMP agents. He was in pursuit of another suspect who allegedly tried to steal something right out from under his nose.

“All available officers were to cordon off the main lobby and the mezzanine where a reception was being taken down, and apprehend the two Americans posing as friends of Director Robertson Sullivan. They’ve kidnapped Acting Director D’Arcy and may be involved in Sullivan’s murder. This,” Agitato concluded, “is your top priority.”

With that, the remaining officers swarmed out of the temporary security trailer, Arabesk and LeVay running toward the lobby. Assuming them armed and dangerous, Arabesk verified he still had the bullet.

The clatter of their boots reverberated through the emptiness, dying away once the door to the lobby stairs slammed shut, stifling the screams of terrified children rushing back from the plaza’s festivities. In a brief moment, everything left behind them turned to restful silence and the fleeting chaos was quickly forgotten.

The scrape of the metal grate, by comparison, sounded incongruously loud, pausing as if to adjust to the silence. Slowly, as a vent pushed open, a man dropped to the ground.

A large man, too bulky to fit easily through such a vent, unfolded himself awkwardly and cautiously looked around, dressed in black – turtleneck, jeans, sneakers, a ski-cap pulled over his face.

Breathing heavily, he reached for his phone and answered the in-coming call.

“Garth Widor, here – yes, almost ready... Good...”

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

Last minute arrivals were picking up their tickets at the “Will-Call Window” while others were disappointed the only seats the box office had left for tonight were in the auditorium’s remotest reaches. There was a great deal of excitement, several people coming from Munich and Salzburg just to hear Cora diLetto.

“She doesn’t play the provinces often,” one dowager explained to her granddaughter, “but even music lovers from major cities can’t get enough of her. You’re in for an experience, my child.”

As people milled about in the lobby or streamed into the auditorium, anticipation was nowhere higher than in a corner of the mezzanine where a major donors’ reception was winding down. Near the back of the space, caterers moved in, ready to convert the reception into the post-performance gala dinner.

Two members of the Festival’s board were deep in discussion about the economics of art with fellow captains of industry, CEOs of some of the biggest corporations located in the immediate region. Barry Scarpia and Christopher Babbila both knew the importance of convincing others to increase their contributions supporting the Festival. Babbila, one of the younger board members, had seen his grandfather’s sheep farm transformed into a major wool-producing factory. Scarpia was delighted he’d talked him into joining the board last season.

Peter Moonbeam, meanwhile, brought his tour-group to the reception’s edge, treating them to the remains of sweets and champagne, talking about how great art can often be like a beautiful woman, fine wine that you can drink with your eyes or beautiful music which you can devour with your ears. A self-described “jolly fat man,” Moonbeam, a Native-American who thrived on turning recent initiates into life-long classical music aficionados, often found food similes a great help for people to understand music.

“Someone once told me opera was like ice-cream, but a lot of people don’t like opera the first time. So many people say you have to learn how to like opera. Now, truthfully, how many times did it take you to try ice-cream before you realized, ‘hey, I like this’?”

Moonbeam toasted his guests, lifting his champagne glass while quoting a few lines from Franz Schubert’s song, “An die Musik,” then began leading them back to the lobby, realizing they’re running late. Tomorrow, he’ll host a panel discussion with several guest composers focusing on the up-coming world premiere of Faustus, Inc.

Scarpia, receiving a frantic call from backstage – the director’s just decided to pre-record the intermission interview, just in case – suggested to his friend Babbila he should join him in meeting Schmerzleid.

“I can’t figure out D’Arcy: he didn’t even make it to the reception,” Scarpia said, clucking his tongue disapprovingly.

“Perhaps,” Babbila said, barely keeping up with him, “something else came up?”

“Bah,” Scarpia scoffed, “what’s more important than a roomful of major contributors?”

Then he caught a glimpse of Fictitia.

= = = = = = =
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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