Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 9 (Part 2)

The Lost Chord

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

The previous installment begins backstage at the Schweinwald Festival's opening night gala with Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Host Rita Pagliaccio begins the live telecast by interviewing the evening's star, Cora diLetto who's singing Rosina. Unfortunately, her next guests haven't shown up yet. Two of the festival's security team are looking for an old woman who's gotten lost in the parking garage and make a grim discovery.
= = = = = = =

Chapter 9 (continued...)

From around the corner, I noticed the reception area was almost empty, the servers impatiently gathering up empty plates and dirty glasses, clearing off the tables and setting up the dinner chairs.

Handing D’Arcy his phone, I told him, “Get down to the library! It’s LauraLynn – she’s in very serious danger!”

Cameron careened out of the doorway, breathlessly running into us, looking around.

“Quick,” he panted, “they’re right behind me!”

And with that, all three of us headed for the side exit.

Bursting through the stairwell door only seconds behind Cameron, Captain Schäufel, still holding onto his phone after calling for back-up, was followed by two black-clad IMP agents who practically stumbled over him. Small knots of people – board members, the fashionably late – still gathered around, casually sipping the last of the champagne. We hid behind one group, hoping we’d be able to blend in, D’Arcy, in his tux, having a better chance than Cameron or I, still in street clothes after our arrival.

The IMP agents appeared frozen to their respective spots, Schäufel nearly motionless except for clutching at his still-heaving chest. The guests seemed oblivious of their arrival, affording us some momentary cover. It wasn’t going to be easy, breaking away to make our escape, bolting for the next set of doors.

The elevator at the opposite side of the reception area slowly opened, revealing a short figure in an off-beige trenchcoat, wisps of silver hair escaping from beneath a brown and shapeless hat, scowling and eminently displeased, standing beside a proportionately taller IMP agent dressed ominously in black like the other two.

Yoda Leahy-Hu – was she really the International Music Police’s Director of Special Forces? – croaked an order into her phone: “Whatever happens, try not to be disruptive, but I want them alive.”

Cameron, hunching himself over hoping not to stand out in a group of mostly shorter people, noticed Leahy-Hu first, his eyes simultaneously meeting her rheumy gaze, both registering flashes of recognition. Trying not to move, he whispered something about leprechauns at nine o’clock, D’Arcy cautiously turning to follow his glance.

Suddenly, Leahy-Hu’s eyes began to smolder, still smarting from the roach spray. Raising the phone to her withered lips, she spoke a few words. The other agents turned to face us.

D’Arcy suggested acting as nonchalant as possible, shepherding us toward the exit as if he’s giving us a tour. Immediately, I backed into a table, sending glasses crashing to the floor.

We barely made it to the door in time, bounding toward the lobby, the others breaking into hot pursuit.

We raced down the steps, feet pounding, twisting around for two flights, Cameron and I desperately following after D’Arcy’s lead (I’d forgotten Rob told me he’d been a track star in college). We dashed past the lobby entrance, since that would not be safe and headed down toward the main kitchen.

“More options this way,” he panted, pointing down the long, dim hallway. He made a sharp right. “This way!” It looked like any institutional hall lined with offices and meeting rooms.

“Lots of places here to hide,” Cameron noted, “so, why don’t we?”

“Can’t – LauraLynn’s in danger… by the library.”

D’Arcy held a door open for us and we barely scrambled through.

Judging from the clatter of boots behind us, we could hear the agents were not far enough behind us.

Three doorways – which one would we choose? One, he said, led back to the kitchen. The other two were locked. We stopped to catch our breath but the pounding was getting closer. D’Arcy said the middle door led to the library, but he quickly put his hands on all three doorknobs. Swiping his card in the middle door, we followed him through. It clicked shut behind us. “That should help.” But there wasn’t time to slow down: they’re already trying the doors.

A long hall with several sharp turns, lit only with emergency lights, it soon led to three more doors. There was an alcove with two vending machines and a drinking fountain.

“Ooh, cool,” Cameron said, “butterscotch crumpets,” checking his pockets for change, “I haven’t had one of those in months.”

“No time for that!” D’Arcy again touched all three doorknobs, unlocking the right door and locking it behind us. We continued our mad dash down another long and dimly lit tunnel.

“They must have heat censors to follow our trail,” shaking his head. By now, I could barely keep up. “It’s not far from here but we have to keep on going.”

All I could think of was how much danger LauraLynn was in, compared to what danger we were in.

“Hey, wait,” D’Arcy said, stopping up short. I almost spilled over him. “Where’s Cameron? Wasn’t he behind you, Dr. Kerr?”

There was nobody behind me, not even the distant pounding of feet.

I hugged my tote-bag to my heaving chest as if doing so might somehow keep my heart from exploding.

Looking back, I saw nothing, heard nothing and could say nothing. “Evil…”

“What was that?” D’Arcy looked at me.

I waved my hand, unable to speak, shaking my head in disbelief.

Cameron had been my responsibility but here I’d failed him – and myself. I should’ve reached back and grabbed him. He should’ve known not to dawdle, not then, when we’re being pursued.

But I also had a responsibility to Rob and LauraLynn, yet whatever was happening, this could not go on.

“Could he follow us, maybe?”

“The doors would lock automatically behind us.”

“Then the reason we’re not hearing them running after us is, they’ve…”

“Yes,” D’Arcy said, “I’m afraid they’ve caught him.”

Checking the tote-bag to make sure I still had the Maltese Mozart, I said we had to keep going.

“And we have to hurry,” he said. “They must’ve figured it out.”

“What?” I asked. We started running again.

“Someone’s monitoring the key-cards and telling Schäufel. They know where we’re going.”

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

“What the hell?” LauraLynn’s first reaction was as if she’d suddenly seen some hideous monster lurking in the subterranean darkness. Her second reaction wasn’t much more reassuring: was it worth screaming again? She blinked her eyes and stared straight ahead, but still this thing – whatever it was – kept heading toward her. Besides, as she continued cluttering her racing mind with numerous unwelcome thoughts, who’d hear her if she screamed again? Was this Heidi engaging in some prank or was this Rothbart Girdlestone?

No, this was definitely some large hulking man – more like a beast. Some construction worker on a drunken lark? Or someone trying out a costume for a scene from Rob’s opera? She was a rational person and tried to find a rational explanation but temporarily found herself at a loss.

“What the hell?”

This time she said it out loud, annoyed that that was all she could come up with.

“Where is Heidi? Have you seen Heidi?” Right – engage monster in conversation.

He stopped abruptly and quizzically tilted his head slightly to the right, so she repeated her question in German.

Perhaps this was another character from one of Schweinwald’s quaint folk-like celebrations, one that she hadn’t been warned about. Maybe they were doing some up-dated version of Beauty and the Beast.

“She’s making a long-distance call.”

His voice, echoing strangely underground, sounded vaguely familiar, but at least he spoke English.

“Did she say if she’ll be long?” Apparently he must know her.

The 'monster' made some tentative steps toward her, thrusting his hand forward.

He asked, “did you bring the notebook?”

“Wait… what? What notebook…?” She stepped back, gripping her purse. “You are…?”

“Allow me to introduce myself.” He bowed. “I am, believe it or not, Dr. Rothbart Girdlestone, at your service.”

It made no sense, a famous musicologist dressed like… well, like this. He hadn’t struck her as eccentric but it might explain why he didn’t want to meet in the lobby.

“I must apologize,” he said. “You see, I slipped in…” he hesitated, looking behind him, “well, in something slippery.”

She hadn’t reached the library’s reading room yet, but otherwise, looking around her, she didn’t really know where she was. The elevator they’d taken was behind her; weren't the restrooms behind him? Maybe Heidi will be coming back shortly and scare him off, unless… uh oh, something just occurred to her… What if he’d already “taken care of” Heidi? Oh, no, he couldn’t have… now she felt like screaming again. But there’s bound to be security cameras around here somewhere, surely somebody…

While she considered her very few options, LauraLynn noticed the monstrous musicologist (as she now began thinking of him) considered what she might do, like playing chess with a living set-piece. Move too much toward the outside door, he would cut her off. Could she reach the elevator before him?

She should also try to rescue Heidi. Did he tie her up, leaving her bound and gagged in the restroom? No, at this point it would better to escape, alert the police. But he said he’d slipped in “something slippery,” explaining the need to change clothes. Did he mean, like… blood?

She found herself curious about his rather unorthodox manner of dress, looking like he’d raided an old costume trunk. A vaguely recalled whiff came her way, reminiscent of her grandmother’s closets.

It was difficult to know where to start: his towering wig looked like it came out of the 18th Century, the kind a beautiful countess might have worn to a fancy ball. His waistcoat, several sizes too small, left uncovered a massive bare chest, but really, most curious were the pants. She could only describe them as harem pants, the diaphanous genie-like kind, barely hiding the outline of tree-like legs. She wondered if she could outrun him: he was, after all, barefoot.

He was built like a wrestler with a low center of gravity (was he wearing boxers underneath those pants?). She was lithe and slender, winner of several athletic trophies in school. Her over-the-shoulder Belle Ennui cocktail dress with matching heels wasn’t designed for running, but he was wearing harem pants...

Weaving back and forth, hoping her indecisiveness would confuse her would-be attacker – technically, he’d made no overt moves as yet – she considered his obvious power compared to her greater speed and agility. She might fake him out, darting toward the back: instead, she lunged for the elevator, pounding the 'up' button.

But the elevator was taking too long, in a few bounds the beast would be on top of her. She pivoted on her heel – shades of high school basketball – and ran.

When the elevator opened, Peter Moonbeam, running behind schedule, was not amused.

“Jeez, kids playing with elevator buttons? Really?”

They’d skipped the lobby and were now in some grimly creepy basement.

“Hey, you – dirtbag,” Moonbeam called out after the oddly dressed figure running off into the shadows. “Thanks for nothing!”

“What was that,” an older lady asked.

Someone suggested maybe an exotic dancer, perhaps for that scene from Faust.

“Yes,” another offered, “maybe it was for the Helen of Troy scene?”

“Ugh, really,” he shuddered, “I can’t say what I just caught a glimpse of would launch very many ships…”

Any more delays, and he was afraid they’d miss the opera's overture.

As the elevator door closed, he thought he heard a distant scream: someone met Helen in a dark alley?

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

Rita Pagliaccio had pulled herself together once Schmerzleid, having gotten himself back together, managed to talk her down off the pedestal she had retreated to, threatening to fling herself, Tosca-like, into oblivion. Not realizing her makeup needed considerable attention, she was thrust on camera after quickly primping her grotesquely bedraggled hair. Her mascara had run, her pancake looked streaked, her lipstick was smudged. Once he saw her on the monitor, Schmerzleid knew his career was toast, if she didn’t kill him first.

She was greeted by two gentlemen dressed in tuxedos who introduced themselves as board members of the Schweinwald Festival, both enthusiastic about being here if not exactly sure as to why. The tall, middle-aged one on the left was Barry Scarpia and the younger, much cuter one was Christopher Babbila.

Looking at her list, she said, “I see you’re not on my list – as you can see, I have a little list,” she tittered, holding an index card up to the camera. Scarpia, for his part, was trying not to focus on what role she might have been made up for. One of the Eumenides came to mind, or possibly Katisha in The Mikado except that was an alto role. Was someone doing The Little Mermaid and she was the Sea Witch?

“I apologize unanimously for my brief indisposition,” she simpered, her mouth drawn up in such a moue that Babbila stepped back, knocking over an end table set for the next scene. “What sorts of things,” she continued, batting her eyelashes, “would two board members be interested in talking about, hmm?”

Scarpia, momentarily speechless, wondered if this once famous diva wasn’t trying to fit in with the modern fashion world, thinking she’d look younger, more relevant by going for the glam-rock style.

Babbila stammered a bit trying to get himself started, mentioning, though he was a first-year board member, he had been asked to chair the search committee looking for a new director.

“D’you think an over-the-hill opera singer (speaking for myveryself, of course) would have the qualifications for whom you’re searching?”

To cover Babbila’s understandable inability to respond, Scarpia stepped forward and mentioned the two previous directors had many long-range plans which now might be left hanging once a new director was appointed. There was the commitment to transform the festival into a year-round institution with a concert hall and a school. Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist considered it an important step for Schweinwald to remain viable despite numerous funding difficulties and economic risks. Babbila noted, somewhat sourly, that perhaps the timing is not sufficiently fortuitous.

The new wing of the Festspielhaus – here, Scarpia waved his arm in its general direction – was scheduled to open with this summer's season but this is now, unfortunately, already in jeopardy, as was the world premiere of the late former director’s new opera which was left incomplete at his death.

“But wasn’t there something about the old school…” Pagliaccio chewed on her lip trying desperately to recollect a past conversation.

“Some board members, unfortunately, are rather ‘old school,’ that’s true,” Scarpia smiled.

Babbila suggested she meant the old Schweinwald Academy, legendary in its time, once located out at the old castle.

“Ah,” she said, “yes, the old castle. Never underestimate an old ruin, I say. But why did it close?”

“Ancient history, basically – lost in the mists of time,” Scarpia responded uneasily.

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

What Grandma would’ve done to be here in a grand opera house, preparing herself to head into this magnificent theater, getting ready to experience a live performance starring this internationally famous singer. Her whole day would’ve turned into panic in case she should miss even a minute of an opera broadcast. If she didn’t have a radio broadcast to listen to every week, she’d go take out a library recording or listen to one of her own again, one of her favorites. Fictitia remembered how her Da always hated these, being forced to listen to them when he was a kid, getting so angry one time he’d smashed one of her favorite LPs, not sure her tears were for the broken record or realizing he could do something so hurtful as that.

It was probably a bit of both whether he was acting out of rage or rebellion. Fictitia totally got Da’s point of view, you know, being forced to do something he hated. Warbling like wounded crows, his mates always made fun of him because his ma made him listen to opera. That was hardly what a boy dreaming of playing football wanted to do, “better” himself by hiding behind the skirts of some overweight prima donna yodeling her eyes out on stage.

Fictitia saw it as much a “class” thing as a “cultural” thing: this stuff was meant for the aristocrats, those pompous lesions on society, parasites of the bloody workers and all. What right did Grandma have, a poor old widowed housewife, putting on airs liking all this high society muck? Her grandmother still listened to these huge recordings weighing a bloody ton when everything she ever needed to listen to in this world – anywhere, too – fit into her tiny light-weight iPod.

She didn’t mind a lot of classical music, even enjoyed some of the faster stuff though sometimes “pretty” wasn’t all that bad, either, if you didn’t tell your friends about it. But this time, she wouldn’t worry much about the music: she knew something far more “rad” was going down.

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

“What luck,” Cameron thought, finding just the right change left over from that snack he’d gotten at the train station. He waited patiently as the vending machine slowly released his butterscotch crumpet. But when he turned around, Dr. Kerr and Mr. D’Arcy had disappeared behind one of three doors. Which one?

He tried the door on the left but it was locked (should he have tried the right one, first?). The clattering of boots was getting louder. The middle door’s locked, too.

“Halt, right there,” a woman’s gruff voice shouted. “Agents of the IMP!”

Turning, Cameron tried to look thoroughly innocent.

Three people in tight-fitting uniforms, rifles drawn, blocked the only exit left.

“Uhm, is there a problem?” he asked. “I was only trying to find my way back to the lobby.”

“You’re under arrest for stealing…”

Another of the agents cleared her throat.

“…for allegedly stealing or conspiring to steal… something.”

The other officers tried not to grimace. This wasn’t going very well.

“But I didn’t steal anything,” he said, holding out his snack. “I had the right change for the machine.”

The three agents conferred, keeping their rifles drawn and their stances ready, the one closest grabbing the snack cake.

That’s when Cameron decided, “not another word,” and they marched him away.

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

The opera had begun.

Looking across the empty lobby, Fictitia recalled the tuxes and evening gowns, realizing how her own torn fishnet stockings and black t-shirt were more than out of place. She wasn’t sure she dreaded being branded “uncouth” or felt emboldened because she was invading their hallowed sanctimoniousness – whatever.

She never understood why “dressing up” meant “culture,” as if whatever you're doing was made suddenly better, more enjoyable. What was the point of everybody wearing posh clothes and behaving “properly”?

When Da went to the fights, he wore the same grubby t-shirt and torn pants he wore at home. Wasn’t it grand, going out to hear some killer band with her mates, all of them dressed in Goth Black, everyone screaming and dancing, all part of giving society the finger?

She wasn’t even sure why she was here, covering this event for GothArts, the e-zine she often wrote for. Was she covering it as a straight-forward event or making fun of it? What possible interest could they have, especially in this opera which lacked a certain, shall we say, Gothic sensibility?

Just then, Fictitia saw several security guards file into the lobby, one of them heading right in her direction. She got her press pass ready, her passport into their exclusive world.

Looking over to the far right, near that bank of elevators where she’d last seen him, there were more security guards and some black-clad soldiers (totally cool) escorting that cute guy, Cameron.

Fictitia felt a hard grip on her shoulder, a guard wheeling her around like he’s about to expel her.

“You were seen talking to that young man. Did he tell you anything of interest about, say… a murder?”

“What drugs are you on? What killer would confess to a reporter?”

Turning to walk away as defiantly as possible, thinking, “go ahead, try and arrest me,” she found her way blocked by a tall gentleman in a tux. It was Barry Scarpia.

“Everything’s all right, Officer,” he smiled. “The young lady is with me.”

With that, he held out his hand.

= = = = = = =
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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