(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)
In the previous installment, Garth Widor discovers he has accidentally recorded a SHMRG board meeting. As Security Dispatcher Preston Agitato tracks down Widor's stolen van and the whereabouts of reporter Fictitia LaMouche, Skripasha Scricci wants the bitch eliminated. Once Cameron decides to toss the stolen van's GPS unit onto a truck heading in the opposite direction, Agitato then realizes the van seems to be heading north while Fictitia is now heading south.
= = = = = = =
We were now southbound on the B-23, eventually taking us to Garmisch-Partenkirchen and, one way or another, our next destination, a bit unsettling not knowing who we’re meeting or what we’d find. Cameron, who confessed he watched too many high-tech police shows on television, worried if anyone could track LauraLynn’s phone. The question was, did Schweinwald security have access to such sophisticated technology? It would seem, on the whole, doubtful. The IMP, however, was an unknown quantity with who knew what resources.
Clearly the murderer – that is, the guy we alleged was Rob’s murderer – had access to LauraLynn’s private phone number but if he had stolen Rob’s phone, that much would be understandable. But beyond that, could he gain access to her phone’s GPS system to monitor her whereabouts, pin-pointing her location?
After some discussion, we chose not to respond to the killer’s text afraid to activate some connection between their phones, and LauraLynn shut her phone off, tucking it away in her purse. Fidgeting for lack of anything that would help us occupy the time, once again she pulled out the artifact.
“This music that’s written along the length of the spine,” she said, running down the back with her finger, “doesn’t look like any piece of music I can make sense of.”
Looking for something to do, I’d carefully taken out the old journal before I admitted basically the same thing, dealing with page after page of code, all of it written backwards, like some kind of mirror writing, all capitals, with perfectly straight margins, then superimposing some kind of substitution code.
“That’s easy,” LauraLynn said, “Heidi told me,” turning back to the first page where it suddenly turned into gibberish. “She said it’s probably a substitution code using the alphabet in retrograde.”
Suddenly, she raised her hand to her mouth after a sharp gasp. “Oh, my God, poor Heidi!” she sighed. “Here, I’ve completely forgotten all about her – I wonder if she’s okay...”
The last she’d seen her was right before that monster showed up, she explained as she sat back, sobbing.
Forging ahead, hoping it might take her mind off an unfortunate situation, I read over these last words in English, from the bottom of the one page before turning to the next, a passage concerning some argument “holding a mirror to Brahms and Mahler” before switching over the page-turn to code.
Grabbing a pen and paper then reading backwards from the inside margin, I quickly jotted down
“WGXQLF XKU LXQMTG.”
Then underneath it, writing it out as LauraLynn watched,
“BRAHMS AND MAHLER”
“See, Brahms and Mahler are both six-letter names,” I showed her, “and both include letters AH, M and R. The two names in code contain the letters XQ, L and G. That means B becomes W in the code, and AH becomes XQ – M and R become L and G.”
So after I wrote out the complete alphabet in a single line, placing letters from the code underneath their equivalents, I soon realized, considering A=X, it was the alphabet in retrograde.
With the help of my little cheat-sheet, I was slowly able to translate the first sentence into plausible English:
...that I should proceed cautiously, holding a mirror to Brahms and Mahler before finding myself reflected in its circumstances: if in fact Gutknaben had been murdered, was I also in danger?
Generations of Hartys had assumed all this code was some childhood conceit, like a secret club allowing no admittance. Even if we had read it that summer long ago in Maine, hiding up in the attic with Rob, it might have seemed no more than a student’s tale of adventure.
Frankly, if I'd read it only a month ago, I would've assumed it was the product of his imagination, a young man caught up in a strange place without any friends. But now, given our own recent experiences, I questioned the convenient theory it was only an attempt at fiction.
If in fact old Great-Grandpa Harry had suddenly found himself in danger, wouldn’t this change the family’s impression of him? If he was just telling a story, why write it in code? What was this talk of murder about: what did this Gutknaben know and why was it worth killing for?
Having stumbled ourselves into something by accident, something putting us in danger, I thought each of us could relate, asking the same questions and wondering if our quest wasn’t somehow connected?
“You think the killer’s after the journal because it contains some information about whatever Great-Grandpa Harry had become involved in?” LauraLynn sounded less skeptical than she might have a few hours ago.
“Guys,” Cameron said, apologizing for the interruption, “but we’re approaching the switchback that guy, Rob's friend, warned us about?”
“If Rob had been killed because of something he knew,” I suggested, thinking of any possible motives we’d considered, “maybe now the killer’s going after us, thinking we know it, too.”
I closed the journal, putting it away, apologizing that I was getting motion sickness, if nerves weren’t bad enough, reading in a car something that often bothered me ever since childhood.
“Fasten your seatbelts,” Cameron warned us, “it’s going to be a bumpy ride. No,” he added, “I mean literally.”
While I was busy, we had been driving down an Alpine valley, passing through Oberammergau with its beautifully hand-painted homes, a quaint village that under normal circumstances I would love to explore. I wondered if the Passion Playhouse would be visible from the road but ended up forgetting all about it.
There were warning signs full of curvy lines indicated a steep switchback made more dangerous by a recent rock-slide, probably within the past half-hour, considering the men swarming over the road.
One of them stepped forward, a big burly guy with a beard, flagging us down for a friendly warning, saying the road was open but littered with smaller rocks and debris.
“Ja,” he laughed, nodding vigorously, then pointing toward the first sharp turn, “so don’t go speeding, it’s no raceway.”
While others finished pushing one last large rock out of the way, he asked us politely where we were headed. Perhaps he figured he had to make pleasant conversation with the tourists.
“Garmisch,” Cameron started before I joined in, saying we’d need to find a hotel if it wasn’t too late.
“Late?” He started laughing again. “In Garmisch, it is never late, ja?”
“Well, that’s good to know,” I said.
“Ah, here, now they’re done: go ahead,” he said, “but be careful.”
Careful sounded like a pretty good idea as the man slapped his hand across the back of the van. Pretty soon, I lost track how many of these turns we made. Each time, whatever was rolling around in the back of the van kept hitting one side, then the other.
Eventually we made it down into the valley and through the tunnel and called the number Drummoyne gave me. Relieved to hear from us, the man gave us the last directions.
Through Garmish and along the Loisach River, we found the various Pfeifferings and the road leading up the mountain. Leverkühnweg also made several winding turns, twisting up through ominously dark pines.
“Chalet,” I said, looking up somewhat stupefied. “It’s more like a fortress!”
“Yeah, right out of the Middle Ages…”
Even in the shadows of the moonlight, it was an imposing edifice, a pile of dark stones, gates and turrets that rose up out of the rocks once you reached the peak. The place, admittedly, gave me the creeps, thinking about writing music, here. Was there a dungeon in the basement?
To live in your very own castle, isolated on an alpine mountaintop: who wouldn’t want to be left undisturbed? But I had to ask, standing there in awe, for what purpose?
Perhaps he’s the big boss, the Maestro, and D’Arcy is his minion. Perhaps he controls Dhabbodhú and the IMP. And yet, here we are, delivering the secret into his very hands.
We could stroll through these doors and never be heard from again, walking right into a carefully laid trap.
“Hello?” I called out, unable to find a doorbell in the shadows.
“Ah, good, you’re here already… hold on, uhm…”
A familiar pale, egg-shell voice must be coming from some unseen intercom.
Slowly the heavy wooden gate creaked open and there was the familiar face of the soon-to-be centenarian, Howard Zenn.
“You’d better hurry: we haven’t much time,” he said, letting us in.
I assumed the obvious, given his age.
“I'd been thinking about going downtown to the bars,” he continued, smiling.
= = = = = = =
To be continued...
posted by Dick Strawser
The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.