Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 18

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, from Harrison Harty's Schweinwald Journal in the summer of 1880, we read about his roommate Gutknaben, his new friends, fellow-students Gustav Mahler, Hans Rott and Ethel Smyth, the visits of Brahms and Liszt and how, after Liszt's oddly disconcerting recital with its oddly disconcerting avant-garde music, Gutknaben's body was found at the statue of Simon Sechter. The journal breaks off abruptly. We return to the stage of the modern-day Schweinwald Festspielhaus following the finale of Act One of The Barber of Seville which, in this production, included the surprise appearance of three apparently lost characters being pursued by three equally lost, futuristically clad Special Forces agents from the International Music Police.

= = = = = = =


Aided by the militiamen’s hasty retreat in the face of unexpected gunfire – so much, I thought, for Seville’s finest – we managed to avoid being taken prisoner by the advancing IMP agents who were otherwise momentarily immobilized by the giant slip-and-slide created after the anvil crushed a whole wagonload of pumpkins. Everyone was frantic, bustling about, hastily reconfiguring themselves for the curtain call when I unceremoniously collided with Count Almaviva, sung so effortlessly by the young Spanish tenor, Tito Nelmondo y Burla. Unflappably gracious despite still being so highly ramped, he seemed genuinely concerned about our situation, making sure we were okay, more out of curiosity rather than anger we’d just destroyed his performance (judging from the continuing cheers and applause still resounding through the curtains, clearly that was no longer the case).

Jostled on all sides by the pandemonium, I managed to congratulate him, wishing our conversation had been under better circumstances, bowing in mock politeness given my unexpectedly casual appearance under the situation.

“May I say how thoroughly we enjoyed what little bit of your performance we had the privilege of catching.

“This is my lovely ward, Donna del’Lago,” (LauraLynn leaned forward, curtsying shyly), “my trusted valet, Musetto,” (D’Arcy bowed deferentially), “and I am Dr. Baroldo,” I concluded as Nelmondo nodded, laughing heartily.

Shouts of bravo – even “Encore!” – cut through the applause which now turned rhythmic, the ultimate form of vociferous approval, as I explained to him our flight from three very nasty Valkyries “whose boss,” I added, “would without a doubt make the Queen of the Night look like a den mother,” peering over his shoulder toward the stagehands desperately trying to mop up the mashed remains of several dozen pumpkins while sweeping the uncooperative agents toward the opposite side of the stage.

Glowering at us, the harried stage manager shooed everyone else on stage, mumbling prayerfully “Please, God, no more surprises” after he called out for everyone to take their positions for bows.

Nelmondo grabbed a nearby militiaman and whispered to him, pointing at us.

“What,” I thought, “he’s ordering our arrest?”

“Follow him,” Nelmondo told us, “he’ll take you to an undisclosed location,” pushing the soldier toward us with a wink before wheeling around and heading out onto the stage for his bow.

The hapless Gottlieb, semaphoring like a windmill, couldn’t urge the curtain to close any faster than it already was.

Not a moment too soon! The agents broke loose from the stagehands, after threatening them with old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat, then stalked furiously across the stage of the Festspielhaus, their rifles poised.

The curtain opened immediately for another bow, catching the three agents center-stage, greeted by wild cheers and comical jeers. Holding up their rifles, they pumped their arms to the applause’s rhythm.

Intercepting them for another bow, Nelmondo, seeing us disappear into the crowd, then raised his saber toward the wings.

On his dramatic signal, soldiers rushed onto the stage with full-throated bravado, their bayonets fixed and pointed despite Gottlieb’s protests, engaging the invaders in mock combat to continuing cheers from the crowd.

Our soldier, meanwhile, continued pushing us toward one of the backstage exits as Almaviva led his spirited surprise attack.

D’Arcy said we knew what we had to do – (we did? really?) – deciding it was time to split up: in a matter of seconds, they would be back on our trail.

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

Snapping her phone shut indignantly, Yoda Leahy-Hu had not appreciated the news she’d just received from IMP dispatcher Aida Lott, especially since she was under extreme pressure to close this case quickly. She tried to avoid that sense she was not at her best, this particular assignment unfortunately going nowhere rapidly. After being stuck in a construction trailer interrogating her prime suspect’s accomplice in the cramped confines of a restroom, she realized not only was it pointless, young Pierce was essentially useless.

As she walked across the parking lot, seeing no point in hurrying, Director Leahy-Hu had been awaiting good news but it seemed her prey was more dastardly than she’d assumed possible. And worse, no local officers were available because they were too busy chasing some hulking moron in harem pants.

She’d just gotten word her three best “angels” – well, two of them: Gelida-Manina and Menveaux plus the new guy, Leise – had managed to corner their prey on the stage of the Festspielhaus. (How, Director Leahy-Hu wondered, could three people ever manage to ‘corner’ something on possibly the largest stage in Europe?)

“But they’d run into what you might call ‘complications,’ it being in the midst of a performance and all,” Lott said, not sure her tone of voice sounded concerned or amused.

Leahy-Hu had visions of the over-zealous new-comer, Milton Leise, inadvertently killing dozens of opera stars, extras, techies and stagehands in a spray of bullets while trying to capture the professor’s tote-bag.

“‘By any force necessary’ did not mean put the opera’s cast, crew and audience at risk, is that clear?”

Just then, in the background, she heard a burst of machine-gun fire but was told the casualties were limited, confined to an anvil, a wagon and a sizable number of pumpkins.

Unfortunately, it turned out, Agent Lott rapidly processing the agents’ frantic reports, they’ve been foiled in their attempted apprehension of the fleeing Dr. Kerr, Mr. D’Arcy and an unknown female companion by unexpected support from a bunch of supernumeraries who blocked their exit and thus allowed the fugitives to escape.

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

Our soldier and guide introduced himself as a regular spear-carrier at Schweinwald whose name sounded a little like Wyatt Zittipiano, cautioning us to be extra quiet to avoid attracting any undue attention. We hurried down some winding hallways until we no longer heard the hubbub of the backstage area behind us.

He explained how Señor Nelmondo preferred the peace and quiet back here, off the beaten and usually busy path. At the moment, it was completely deserted but that could quickly change.

This was as much a maze as the basement hallways had been: how did anyone find their way around? When Zittipiano stopped, I barely missed getting severely rattled by his saber.

Surprisingly, our way was all but blocked by a tiny and totally mild-mannered woman dressed in an usher's uniform.

“What,” she growled, “is your purpose back here?” Despite her size, it was clear there was no getting past her.

I began, “we’re waiting for Señor Nelmondo at his dressing room to…”

“What,” she raised a hand, cutting me off, “is your favorite color?”

“Damn it, I always hated trick questions.”

“Ms. Abbot,” Zittipiano interrupted, pointing behind us, “haven’t you heard about the three intruders backstage they’re having trouble ejecting?”

Without any further word, her eyes lit up and she was off.

Peering around the corner, his saber drawn in case of further surprises, our soldier, explaining we’d passed the test, beckoned us to follow him quickly down one empty corridor after another.

“Getting past Senior Usher Nandi Abbot, they say, is no small feat.” He chuckled at how he’d outsmarted her.

“You can consider yourselves lucky,” Zittipiano continued, “because that was probably the most ruthless usher in all of Bavaria.” She was usually stationed backstage to keep adoring fans away from singers.

“Don't let Nandi’s seeming pleasantness fool you,” he added with a smile, “there's a reason she’s called 'Killer' Abbott.”

Reaching the dressing room, Wyatt opened the door after a cautious knock.

“Señor Nelmondo will arrive shortly,” he said, closing the door on us. “Meanwhile, you must let no one in.”

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

After watching the militiaman lead Kerr and LauraLynn down the one hallway, D’Arcy knew his role was playing the decoy, drawing the agents after him, whether or not they’d eventually catch him. All he had to do was hang around backstage just long enough so they’d see him run.

They did.

Not sure where this hallway was going, he figured the further it led away from Dr. Kerr, the better. He’d completely lost track where he was: he just needed to 'escape.'

Running toward him were three Schweinwald agents, one of them Officer Sordino, each with their pistols drawn and ready.

There was no time to explain but they could come in handy.

“Quick, Sordino,” he yelled back, “they’re after me,” then added, “stop them!”

Sordino led the charge, rounding the corner.

D’Arcy heard a crunch, some cursing behind him, no doubt his security officers colliding head-on with the three IMP agents.

At least that would give him a few more seconds' lead, right?

How much further can he go before he can run no more?

Another turn – left? right?

He went left.

Then suddenly everything went blank for D'Arcy. Did he hit a wall?

Perhaps he was having a heart attack.

Maybe his lungs gave out and collapsed.

Or did he just trip?

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

The chalet, as the composer and his late partner referred to it – this always amused their friends since the oldest part of the sprawling building dated back to a 14th Century monastery – anyway, the chalet was a lonely place in the mountains near Garmisch-Partenkirchen and not always easy to get to. Though he kept a housekeeper, butler, and cook, plus a summer-time gardener, a mere fraction of the former staff, as soon as dinner was served they retired to the village below. It made the evenings quiet and, for the most part, pleasant with just the old man and his nephew unless there were occasional friends stopping by or, recently, too many journalists. (What with him turning 99 soon, it seemed everybody wanted an interview: "Where were they all, sixty years ago?")

He turned his attention back to Mozart or at least tried to, but realized his mind wasn't in it, the dramatic situation in the opera reminding him of Robertson Sullivan's murder. Now he began to wonder if perhaps one of his favorite piano concertos – like the G Major, K.453, with Cassadesus – might not have been a better choice: funny how things can change. But he didn’t want to delay his nephew's leaving a minute longer by asking him to find another CD.

As the Statue was asking Giovanni would he dine instead with him, the nephew called out from the kitchen, "if you want, I could make some fresh tea before I leave?"

"Please," he answered, "but make it strong."

"Strong, this late?" he asked.

"Yes, I think so. It’ll be okay."

He found himself nodding to the statue and decided it was time he should turn off the CD player, fumbling with the remote before the demons dragged Giovanni off to hell.

The full moon glowed across the valley, sharply highlighting the tiniest details on the nearby peaks outside his window, mountains with their awe-inspiring grandeur that isolated him from the greater world. It was fifty years ago this month that he and his partner had decided to move into this place.

Technically, Wilcox Schlegel was his partner Sebastian's nephew but he was all the family the old man had left, now.

"Here it is, piping hot." Will noticed that the music had stopped.

"I think over at my desk," he said, pointing toward the corner, "I feel like doing some work tonight."

Will raised an eyebrow – it was unusual the maestro worked after dinner – carefully placing the cup by his notebook. He knew there was another deadline looming that had been bothering him.

Before Will could come over to help, the old man got up from his chair and stretched a bit, then shuffled over to his work desk, looking out the broad windows. He preferred working here, now, to his desk by the grand piano. Besides, the phone was here – in case.

"I’ve been having some… well, ideas, for lack of any better word," he explained as he settled into his chair. Will adjusted the pillow across the back, carefully moving the teacup closer. "I just need to jot a few things down for tomorrow morning. I’ll probably forget them, if I don’t."

Trying not to eye up the phone – "yes, not too far away" – he opened his notebook at the marker and picked up one of the ball-point pens he preferred writing with.

"I’m going into town to meet a few friends after a concert," Will started to explain, tidying up the desk. "They texted me they weren’t going to stay for the second half."

"Some nasty new music?" the old man said with a twinkling smile. The tea, he found, was just right.

"Actually," he chuckled, "they enjoyed the new piece on the first half – that recent percussion concerto by Jennifer Higdon – he said they just didn’t need to hear yet another Miraculous Mandarin."

"Ah, I’d heard Jennifer’s concerto on the radio last month – wonderful piece," the old man said, nodding his approval. "But when I first heard the Mandarin, it was still quiet new."

"Yes, it’s so overplayed, now, it’s practically a crowd-pleaser," Will complained, laughing.

"They could always do another Beethoven symphony..."

It was an odd feeling, like something unexpected was going to happen – not to him, not like a health problem – but he caught himself wondering what Sullivan would want him to do.

"Well, if you’re going to meet them, you had better get going," not exactly shoving him out the door.

Will grabbed his keys and a coat, then headed for the elevator, promising to look in on him later. "I’ll only be gone a few hours and I have my cell."

Once he heard the elevator begin its descent to the garage below, the old man puttered around at his desk, moving his sketchbook out of the way to bring the phone closer.

"Ah, finally, I thought the boy'd never leave," the old man sighed, sipping his tea as Will drove away.

It was a comfort having him live upstairs if he needed him, he thought, but sometimes he got underfoot. He flipped through his notebook, wishing he actually had some new ideas.

"This is no kind of life for someone Will’s age," he sighed, "stuck out here alone, isolated from friends, spending all his time being an old man’s personal secretary and houseboy."

Glancing at the drum table, he wondered about Robertson's strange little gift. What did he expect would happen now?

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

Torvald Kegelstatt was told to meet the IMP’s Chief of Special Forces in three minutes outside the Festspielhaus’ freight entrance, still trying to collect himself and figure out what was going on, though all he’d managed so far was that there’d been some explosion which left the back wall severely damaged. Nervously looking around – someone told him it involved this huge hulking creature – he reached his post barely in time to see a small figure in black rags disappearing toward the woods. Thinking he should alert security, Torvald realized in his hurry he must’ve forgotten to bring his phone with him but it was too late now because he saw the Chief approaching, a tall young man with dark hair being followed by some wizened old fellow in a tawdry-looking khaki-colored raincoat.

Kegelstatt apologized profusely for nothing in particular yet seemingly everything in general as he proceeded to offer his eager assistance, telling the young man a room was set aside as he’d requested.

Cameron kept nodding deferentially to the short and rumpled figure beside him until Leahy-Hu spoke up and thanked him.

“Ah, you’re the Chief? Sorry,” Kegelstatt blushed. “Surely I had been misinformed.” He leaned over, offering his deferential hand.

“Just take us there immediately, young man – and my name isn’t Shirley.”

“Yes, sir,” Kegelstatt said, cursing his inexperience and trying not to cringe at whatever gaffe he may have committed, not intentionally insulting the old foreigner. “This way, sir,” he added condescendingly. Though still new on the job, he’d already discovered artists and old folks were the most temperamental people around.

Young Torvald turned on his heels and briskly led the way through a series of twisting hallways and staircases that left Leahy-Hu, barely keeping up, sputtering on the verge of breathlessness.

“Is there a problem, sir?” Kegelstatt asked after clearing another dozen steps.

Gasping for breath, Leahy-Hu was muttering incoherently.

She leaned against the wall, gesticulating wildly behind them, then pointed forward.

“Perhaps what she’s trying to say,” Cameron offered, glancing down at her, “might be ‘where the hell are we?’”

“As I understood it, sir,” young Torvald said, trying not to sound superior, “you required a secure yet remote space which I assumed meant you’d prefer to be neither disturbed nor distracted?”

“That… may be…, young man” Leahy-Hu rasped out between great, heaving breaths, “but is this place… really… handicap-accessible compliant?”

“Ah, then we could’ve taken the elevator over there,” he pointed out. “I always prefer to take the stairs.”

She was amazed she managed not to kick him in the shins.

“We’re almost there, sir,” Kegelstatt blithely continued, resuming their seemingly endless trek, “the room’s just around the next corner. Though I guess we could rest awhile, if you’re in no hurry.”

“He must be pushing fifty,” Torvald thought with the arrogance of youth, “and probably a smoker, considering that voice.”

They stopped at a simple door, unadorned except for the number 498, which Kegelstatt tried unlocking with his master key. “It’s simply furnished and rarely used,” he explained, coaxing open the lock.

Once inside, he pointed out the private restroom and a desk phone then excused himself with his deepest apologies.

Leahy-Hu’s phone began chirping its distinctive ring-tone – Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” – though she barely had a chance to catch her breath before answering when Manina started her quick, detailed report.

“Good news and bad news,” Agent Manina began. “We’ve captured Acting Director D’Arcy in a hallway leading away from backstage but he says Professor Kerr and the woman had been behind him. When he turned around and saw us, he says he has no idea what might have become of them.”

Leahy-Hu tried sounding ominous, panting between breaths, “On a scale of one-to-ten… as good news goes… that’s a four?… I’m assuming you’re telling me… that Professor Kerr has somehow… eluded you?”

Agent Manina gave Leahy-Hu a quick but detailed summary of the events leading up to Acting Director D’Arcy’s capture. “If it hadn’t been for the Seville guards getting in our way…”

“Wait,” she said, her steely eyes sharply focusing on nothing in particular, “he has support from… a civilian militia?”

“So, a third person has joined our elusive fugitive,” she thought, “and now he’s managed to acquire mercenaries, as well.” Perhaps she’d underestimated the power of her adversary, if not his intelligence.

“One of the ushers,” Manina continued matter-of-factly, “mentioned a guard escorting two people to one of the dressing rooms…”

“Ah, perhaps they’re bringing the professor up to my new interrogation room,” she said, finally gaining her breath. “Excellent.”

“I was thinking,” Manina replied, “perhaps the guard is helping them escape?”

Leahy-Hu ordered IMP Dispatcher Lott, knowing her proximity to Schweinwald Dispatcher Agitato, to have the Festspielhaus’ perimeter locked down so Kerr and his mysterious lady-friend couldn’t escape (if they hadn’t already).

“And tell Schäufel,” she added, “it's a matter of international music security. We cannot risk having him at large.”

Turning her attention back to Agent Manina, Leahy-Hu began giving her directions, starting from the back of the building, but got so thoroughly confused after the tenth turn, she gave up.

“Never mind, Agent Manina. Bring Mr. D’Arcy up to my dressing room. You’d better hone in on my GPS. I have the distinct impression this place was designed by M.C. Escher.”

This gave Leahy-Hu an idea how best to deal with Cameron Pierce.

She placed him inside the next room.

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

“The black swan dies at midnight,” a voice mumbled outside the door.

“Agent Manina, how often have I told you,” Leahy-Hu sighed, opening carefully, “the password’s ‘the black swan flies at midnight’?”

A blindfolded and humbled D’Arcy was then unceremoniously pushed into the room.

“So good to see you, Mr. D’Arcy.”

While they handcuffed D’Arcy to the chair, Leahy-Hu whispered something barely audible, referring to some guy named Paul Meary which made the agent look up, nod, then reach into a pocket.

Manina then went next door and motioned Cameron out into the hallway where she patted him down for weapons, telling him to wait patiently until Director Leahy-Hu was ready for him.

With that, she excused herself, given the urgency of catching the professor – and keeping an eye on Mr. Meary.

Once Manina left him alone, Cameron looked around, then sheepishly sneaked off till he somehow found himself hanging out backstage. There, he saw security officers hurrying past, too preoccupied to notice him. Rita Pagliaccio was attempting to do another interview, the broadcast’s intermission feature, while singers and stage-crew milled about expectantly.

He skirted past them, eventually discovering a door opening onto the lobby and from there, out onto the plaza.

“Piece of cake,” he thought, which reminded him how hungry he was.

Near the fountain, a rotund man was selling what looked like hot-dogs piled high with sweet peppers and onions, and fortunately they cost just the amount of cash he had left.

Glad he’d worn his jacket on such a cool night, he laughed: someone nearby complained how warm it was.

After someone poked him in the back, Cameron tried not to react, assuming his luck ran out, once again. How long would it’ve taken before the IMPs caught up with him?

The first time they had arrested him, they brutally confiscated the crumpet he’d just retrieved from the vending machine and here he was, ready to chow down on this delicious-looking hot-dog.

But instead, it’s a young hoodlum in shirt-sleeves who demanded his hot-dog.

“While you’re at it, the jacket, too.”

It wasn’t that the guy was that much bigger than he was – in fact, he was a pretty good match – but Cameron had no interest in creating a scene or attracting attention. He couldn’t very well go running up to tell the security guards since they were probably looking for him.

Perhaps he minded losing the hot-dog more since he had other jackets but now his wallet was gone, too.

And there the guy went, dashing across the plaza toward the hotel.

The vendor had seen everything and was ready to signal the officers when Cameron shook his head and frowned. His pockets now empty, he shrugged his shoulders and walked slowly away.

Feeling badly for the poor young tourist, the vendor dished up another, “on the house,” piling it even higher.

Agent Lott reported to Leahy-Hu that they had movement on “Paul Meary” – the traditional code-name given to any suspect the IMP was tracking after having planted a GPS unit in their clothing.

“Good,” Leahy-Hu said. “Manina, Menveaux and Leise – make sure whatever you do, don't lose his trail, is that understood?”

With that she snapped her phone shut with a laugh so ominous, it sent grave-chilling shivers down D’Arcy’s spine.

"Now he'll lead us to the professor – and his little tote-bag, too!"

= = = = = = =
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

No comments:

Post a Comment