Monday, January 19, 2015

The Lost Chord: Chapter 34

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, the conclusion of an excerpt from Harrison Harty's 1880 Schweinwald Journal, Harty recounts the continuing adventures he and his friends Mahler, Rott and Ethel Smyth experienced that summer, thinking about what might have gotten his roommate Gutknaben killed and about the polarization of music between Brahms and the Conservatives and Liszt and the Modernists. Dean Bezsmyertnikov, in his seminar, "Nuance and Mockery in the Critique of New Music," throws down a challenge. Overhearing a conversation between Brahms and the counterpoint professor, Emilio Fabbro, Ethel discovered there's a dinner at the Count's home which struck her as suspicious: she and the others follow Brahms' coach in a wagon at a discreet distance, but things do not go according to plan. Meanwhile, the present-day narrative resumes at Zenn's alpine chalet after the disastrous episode pitting SHMRG agents against the IMP when LauraLynn Harty was abducted.

= = = = = = =

Chapter 34

"I go out for an evening and leave him alone for just a couple hours and look what happens!"

Will Schegel shook his head, stopping occasionally to massage his aching wrists. He'd been in the kitchen preparing tea for Uncle Howard's unexpected visitors – decaf, given the hour – when they returned.

He didn't know what to call them – they weren't really the police – but he'd already told them what happened. In fact, he wasn't even sure he could really trust them, either.

The one who's dressed up like a Goth chick was pretty strange, not like any of his uncle's usual visitors. Hiding by the van before it exploded, she's lucky to be alive.

Then there was that short, ugly one, the guy in the trenchcoat, plus all these agents dressed in black.

It was the ones dressed in white who'd come out of nowhere, a scene that kept replaying inside his head. It had been so frightening, he explained, like something from a movie. He had no idea who they were or why they were there, much less why they wanted his uncle.

And now the dungeon was a shambles, so many things hopelessly ruined, huge holes blasted through two side walls. But then, walls can always be repaired. Thankfully, Uncle Howard was unharmed.

Fictitia LaMouche, for her part, sat there sulking, saying nothing to anyone, annoyed they had taken away her phone. Weren't these the guys who'd arrested Cameron? She would tell them nothing. Dressed in gothic black right down to the bruises around her head, she quietly soaked up everything she heard.

She'd taken a much needed cigarette break, after escaping from the van, watching this dude open the garage door when all these guys in white come from nowhere and grabbed him.

Next, these guys in black grabbed her, snooping around in the garage – the door'd been left open, she insisted – so she figured she needed a diversion, blowing up the van. Oops...

Fictitia looked up as the door opened and seemed surprised.



Then simultaneously, "What are you doing here?"

"So I take it you two know each other," Leahy-Hu nodded, skipping over unnecessary introductions. "May I ask, how?"

Fictitia remained silent but nodded at Cameron, glad, at least, he's okay.

"We're friends on Facebook," he said cautiously. "We'd met at the fountain on the plaza after BandanaMan fell in."

"So now, I suppose," she sighed, "you're life-long 'buds,' is that it?" She pulled out her phone and dialed.

Will helped his uncle to the table and gave him some tea.

"Yes, Agent Lott," Leahy-Hu started, sounding imperiously official. "I'll need a forensic team to mop up after the SHMRG agents. Any word from those who are trailing Mr. Widor and his hostage? And while you're at it, I'll need return transport to Hotel Schweinwald, including the good professor and his wingman."

Leahy-Hu tried to explain, checking her watch, how they've been tracking Widor, a henchman of SHMRG's CEO, N. Ron Steele, over a period of years with no luck at catching him red-handed.

"And in all that time," she concluded, "we've never had evidence of alter-egos or other disguises like you've mentioned!"

"But don't forget," I insisted, "LauraLynn, Cameron and I saw Dhabbodhú at the banquet the night Rob was killed, and also how he'd left the table before the murder was discovered."

Though we hadn't actually seen the man LauraLynn was calling Rothbart Girdlestone, D'Arcy and I agreed her description matched BandanaMan and the old woman – as well, I added, as Dr. Dhabbodhú.

Leahy-Hu held up Fictitia's phone showing us a photo posted on Facebook, this snarling hulk before a smoking fissure.

"Yes!" I shouted, "that could easily be another of Dhabbodhú's ingenious disguises."

Slapping the phone back in her pocket, Leahy-Hu explained how Fictitia followed him out to the old Schweinwald Castle.

"That's the original site of the statue, isn't it?" I asked D'Arcy.

"Yes," he said, "on the old fountain before it was moved inside and got stuck in the castle's foyer."

Losing patience, Leahy-Hu pulled out her phone and called Agent Lott again.

"That helicopter can't get here fast enough!"

While Leahy-Hu made her call, I put the statue on the table, plunking it down in front of Howard Zenn.

"It's not very large, considering," I said, "barely eight inches tall, maybe?"

"Made of bronze," D'Arcy said, lifting it, "but not all that heavy."

Cameron wondered if there's another statue inside.

"It must be the model," I suggested, "used to create the large statue that's now on the Festspielhaus Plaza."

D'Arcy noted one slight difference: "there, Beethoven's a little more hunched forward."

Dismissing Cameron's not unlikely idea for now, I wondered what Beethoven's statue had been doing inside the Maltese Mozart, the clue on the medallion more pertinent to Beethoven's love-life than Mozart's.

"But," Zenn pointed, "have you noticed this?" His finger ran along some tiny marks which appeared to be texture.

I leaned forward, looking over his shoulder at the statue's broad back but couldn't see what he was pointing at. It amazed me at his age he could see that at all.

"I'm not sure," he said, "but it looks like it's a text – here, five lines... can't you see it?"

"Would it be easier to read on the actual statue," Cameron wondered, "once we get back to the Festspielhaus?"

"It's probably been inscribed only on this... Fetch me a magnifying glass?"

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

"Where am I?" kept floating through her cotton-stuffed head like a mantra, feeling too weak to open her eyes. LauraLynn was looking around but couldn't see, assuming she must be blindfolded. "Yes, that's probably it," feeling somewhat better until it occurred to her, "so why the hell am I blindfolded?"

She could hear talking but couldn't make out what anyone was saying, bits of information floating to the surface like she was coming up from a deep sleep, too far away.

Thinking she should lie still and let it happen on its own, she began to realize she wasn't exactly floating. She was sitting in a chair – no, strapped to one – but why?

Was this what it was like to come back from a near-death experience or come out of a coma?

She had this vague recollection there'd been an intense amount of noise – perhaps that's why she could barely hear now. She'd never been shell-shocked before, unless the blindfold was covering her ears. Didn't gunfire make that kind of noise, she remembered from watching TV, but where'd she get caught in gunfire?

She tried to remember where she'd been, urging herself to think calmly: "What was the last thing you recall?" Considering the images flashing across her eyelids, she had to be hallucinating.

She had been huddling in the darkness with Rob and Terry, laughing – was it the corner of the attic – why did she feel like she was coming out of a coma? No, those were two different things – one was then; the other, now – even if she's unsure which was which.

It wasn't a laughing matter, more like... wait a minute, what did Cousin Maurie have to do with it? Yes, in Maine that summer, hiding from Maurie who never forgave them.

Rob looked so young then, but wait – hadn't he died recently – murdered?

There was an image of a horribly disfigured face floating past her, seeing, hearing, speaking nothing – she tried screaming.

And poor old Terry – kind, geeky Terry – "but wasn't he gray-haired with a beard, now?" No, too far back...

It was like someone – or something – had gone and hijacked her mind, thoughts coming and going in any order. "This is your brain on quantum theory." It was kind of scary.

"Hijacked?" Maybe she was flying, strapped to a chair on a plane, but moving – or more like being transported.

"Oh, I just want to go back to sleep – so peaceful, there," but then she started thing about struggling. "What if sinking into unconsciousness means death?" She didn't want to die.

"Not exactly hijacked," it occurred to her, "more like abducted, that's it." At first, she felt a tiny bit relieved. But again, there was no connection that made any sense: "by whom?"

She found herself running wildly through dark hallways with lots of turns – and a naked man – "Wait – harem pants...?"

Like that made any sense! What was going on in her brain? What kind of drugs had somebody slipped her?

"That's it – Great-Grandpa Harrison's journal! That guy'd been after the old journal!"

But was that the same guy who grabbed her at the castle then dragged her off down the mountain?

No, he was fully clothed – his face, not as nasty-looking, but still...

The blindfold was ripped from her eyes.

Whump whump whump.

"I'm in a helicopter...?"

Squinting, she saw that face!

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

Lionel still wasn't sure why he was wandering around these secret passageways, considering his deep-seated fear of even moderate darkness, glad enough that these walls were unable to talk – or scream. The room he saw looked like it had been carved into rock, round like some sub-basement of the tower. Had Dhabbodhú somehow transformed this space into a monstrous sound-proofed recording studio? What about those speakers and miles of cables and huge color wheel, as if they'd been installed by Nibelungs?

"It must've cost him a fortune, setting up this studio," Lionel thought, looking through two pinpricks in the wall, no doubt eyes in some creepy portrait following you around the room. And this room certainly looked like a refurbished if long abandoned dungeon, never ridding itself of that evil aftertaste.

After putting the CD into a player, Dhabbodhú – whoever he really was – picked up a white garment of some kind which he pulled over his naked frame like a medieval knight's tunic. It was long, sleeveless and pure white but in place of a red cross was a red treble clef.

Then, holding aloft a belt from which hung a surprisingly small scabbard, he cinched it ceremoniously around his waist. Too small for all but a dagger, it held, instead, a baton!

Beyond the mixer board's top, Lionel could see a three-branched silver candelabra with its three white candles burning brightly. On both sides of the square table stood ornately tall columnar candlesticks.

"They would bring in a fortune on the antique market," Lionel thought. "Even those candles must be 17th Century..."

It was an odd mix, the modern technology of a recording studio inside a space that was pure medieval. The oddest thing was this huge color wheel from some '80s disco.

It was divided into twelve pie-shaped wedges done in such an ornate way, it all looked like stained glass. Imagine if it's some kind of color-clock! Green was at high noon...

Looking around, Lionel had no clear idea what its purpose might be before noticing Dhabbodhú began to move again.

The man he thought was Dr. Dhabbodhú placed two objects before him, evenly spaced across the front of the table: the letter Lionel had stolen for him; and a dusty apothecary jar.

"A sealed letter in Beethoven's own hand so far unread by anyone. And this," he smiled, "Beethoven's dying breath."

He held the jar aloft as if elevating the host, "a steal," he added, "at only $2,577.27 on eBay. The only thing lacking, now, is water from the Fountain of Inspiration."

Clasping his hands prayerfully to his chest, Dhabbodhú bowed in three directions before picking up something from the table, kissing it, placing it around his neck – a locket of some sort.

The man Lionel considered his savior mumbled something he couldn't quite hear, as if cursing someone under his breath.

"Since they want to play childish games, I'll destroy their little symposium and blow up all their famous guest composers."

Lionel was horrified at what he'd heard: he'd wanted to attend that.

"Didn't I see boxes of dynamite in one of the storage rooms? Ah, but there is never enough time..."

Stepping up to the microphone, he cleared his throat and paused briefly before pushing a button on the board. The on-air light glowed softly above him as he adjusted the slider.

"We interrupt your local programming to bring you this special internet broadcast. Good evening and welcome to this history-making concert. Tonight, we'll hear the exciting world premiere of a major new work."

His deep voice sounded modulated and professional, the kind people would say, "Great pipes! You should work in radio!"

Had Dr. Dhabbodhú – or whoever he was – set up a radio broadcasting station in the castle's dungeon, Lionel wondered, or was he a frustrated radio announcer playing a game of pretend?

"I call it Symphonie pour celui dont le temps est venu, the 'Symphony for One Whose Time Has Come.' For the next six hours you will sit there and be amazed."

Dhabbodhú pushed a yellow button and the wheel rose up into place, covering the vast room's sole electric light.

"The composer may not be known to you, no household name – yet – but he is one you will quickly acclaim!"

Like anyone listening, no doubt, Lionel held his breath, awaiting the discovery.

"Bach, Beethoven and Brahms have long waited for the revelation of one greater than they to make his appearance!"

He drew the baton from its scabbard with a magnificent sweeping gesture, ascending a small podium before the table. He prayerfully lifted the ivory baton heavenward before again addressing the microphone.

"So listen to me now, ye millions, this premiere of my masterpiece, to which I have appended this sacred epigram:

Holy Triad,
Mighty Trichord,
Immortal Ternary Form.
Find me three times worthy...

He intoned this twice more, facing to the left, then the right. After a pause, he resumed his incantation.

"Three, a sacred number to most religions. The number of sharps in A Major and flats in E-flat Major. A and E-flat – forming the interval of three whole steps – a tritone!

"I... am... Tr'iTone the Great, the Great, the Great – Tr'iTone Trismégistos! I am the thrice-great DIABOLUS IN MUSICA," he shouted, raising his arms with a roaring, indeed even diabolical laugh.

As Tr'iTone triumphantly hit the play button, equally diabolical music started immediately.

Back into the darkness, Lionel ran screaming.

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

The curtain rises on the corporate office of a major investment firm, Manhattan's JTI Associates, formerly Jott & Tittle, where it is almost midnight and one lone cubicle still remains lit. Adrian Faust is a 50-something mid-level manager who hasn't seen a promotion in over eight years despite dedicated work. Working late at night and alone in his cubicle, fraught with despair, he can sense his impending, inevitable demise, laid off after 24 years of service ("well, so much for loyalty"). 

Adrian imagines receiving a congratulatory plaque for 25 years with the company in his opening aria, 'Just One More Year,' looking forward in a few more years to a comfortable, well-earned retirement. Instead he's wondering when some innocent-looking e-mail, late on a Friday afternoon, will summon him to his supervisor's office. 

Such news, delivered carelessly and lacking any sympathy, will only make him feel less than human, as human resources go. "Coal or wood," he sings, "are resources, and humans quickly burn out." 

Adrian Faust, a dying ember, will be discarded like buckets of ash, the spent remains of a human resource.

Unfortunately, he comes to understand, as he looks back on his career, his whole life has been a failure, how he's never had the necessary spark, rising above the merely ordinary.

Realizing at this stage of life he lacks that reputation for success to make the transition into another company, too old now to find another job with comparable salary or self-worth. Never rising above "merely ordinary," he sings, "I would give anything to live my years here over again – anything!"

Then unexpectedly, a woman dressed in black Prada appears from the darkness, tall, statuesque, very stylish but thoroughly intimidating. Her name is Arachne Webb, the CEO and President of JTI Associates.

She offers to grant that very wish in return for one thing: his unquestioning loyalty – and his immortal soul. Adrian instantly agrees, quickly signing the contract, ignoring the usual fine print.
With a puff of smoke, he's suddenly transformed into a handsome 20-Something and almost immediately begins to earn promotions.

Young Faust soon occupies a top-floor office, leaving his cubicle in the middle of their headquarter's middle floor behind, earning huge bonuses and a reputation as a specialist in hostile take-overs. Next to Ms. Webb's lavish presidential suite, Adrian's windows give him a spectacular to-die-for view of the city below. And he moves from his efficiency apartment on the Upper West Side that looked out into an unsightly air-shaft into an East Side penthouse with a commanding view of Central Park.

He is sent on delicate, often clandestine missions to their European offices and single-handedly brings rival corporations to their knees. He buys companies and sells their assets, firing people and ruining careers. Whenever colleagues meet over lunch and discuss the career of Adrian Faust, they agree he's the quintessential heartless executive.

Aside from his sprawling weekend get-away in the woods of Pennsylvania’s Poconos, he owns luxurious vacation homes near San Francisco, Miami (though he hates beaches), and most recently, now, just outside Paris. He and Arachne maintain an impersonal relationship, the sex powerful and exhausting, the question who's screwing whom left unanswered.

Best of all, with his off-shore accounts, he hardly pays any taxes, future career advancements guaranteed to eliminate them. He grows immune to the misery of those people he's ruined financially.

But after such a meteoric rise with all his fame and wealth, despite having Arachne constantly at his side, Adrian discovers he's being haunted by the ghost of his girlfriend Daisy. She's the only woman he'd ever loved, a simple girl from Iowa who could type 120 words a minute.

She died in a horrible accident several years before Adrian's miraculous transformation, falling in front of a subway train, conveniently leaving little of the body behind – plus there were no witnesses.

Daisy, complaining about her work, often repeated nasty rumors about the CEO, not knowing upper management kept a firm control, monitoring everything workers said and did at work and probably at home: the 'Surveillance Quintet,' stretching from Webb's office to the lowly janitor's closet, was one of the opera's musical highlights.

Daisy's ghost says she hadn't committed suicide, even if the corporate culture ate away at her self-respect and tattered dignity. "I was unworthy of success, they'd complain, not part of the team."

The rest unsaid, Adrian soon finds her spectral visits wearing him down, awakening the conscience he'd thought he'd lost.

"Guilt is the bane of corporate greed," the newly self-knowing Adrian sings, "but what can one do about it?"

This soliloquy ends Act II which is where the incomplete opera stops.

Armin Schreiber could well relate to that, reading over the plot synopsis he'd been working on for Faustus, Inc., a small-time drudge in the festival's machine – "lots of work, little reward." It used to be fun, he thought, before everything became more Americanized, as if the Germans weren't efficient enough.

Wondering how the opera should end, he's sorry he'd agreed to prepare Moonbeam's Powerpoint presentation for tomorrow morning's symposium.

What ghostly apparition would come haunt him tonight, working well past midnight?

When Peter Moonbeam told him earlier about his skype interview with Sullivan though he had not yet listened to it, Schreiber argued it needed to be included in the symposium, without question.

Curious what information he'd find, Schreiber impatiently waited for it to open.

There was Sullivan, smiling: "Hello, testing... Peter?"

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

Peter Moonbeam opened the door to his hotel room to see the fetchingly clad security officer named Kunegunde Nacht striking a bosomy pose and purring voluptuously, a welcome change from before. Whatever made her reconsider her previous indifference wasn't something to be questioned: he was just delighted to see her.

"Well, since I was in the neighborhood, I thought I'd stop by, if you're still thinking about that drink?" Her left hand smoothed down her dress, resting seductively over her thigh.

The trenchcoat aside, she seemed dressed for a night on the town as she sashayed her way into the room. Looking around, she took in her surroundings, then focused on his face.

"Have you been enjoying your visit to Schweinwald so far, Dr. Moonbeam?" she asked with her lips slightly pouting.

"Mmm, 'Doctor' – love the sound of that but please call me Peter," he told her, "I'm not really a doctor." Instead of the hotel bar, he suggested the Mobius Club in Memmingen.

Closing up the laptop, he explained, "I was just finishing up the day's work, so I'm ready to roll."

"Great – I just got off duty myself," she said, stretching her arms, "and I'm positively dying for a drink."

"Alrighty then," he said, "let me just pop into the bathroom, here..."

Moonbeam kept up a constant patter of small talk from the bathroom which Kunegunde acknowledged with the occasional grunt, too busy checking the laptop to see where he kept that interview. Depending on what Sullivan might've told him, there might be enough information to convince people the opera'd been finished.

There were enough rumors going around that not only was it complete, there could be back-up copies as well. Let conspiracy theorists think what they want, but rumor cannot become fact.

"So, Kunegunde – may I call you Kunegunde? – how was your day today," Peter called out cheerily from the bathroom.

"Fine – it was fine," she grunted back, locating the file easily enough.

"And no doubt getting better," she thought, quickly hitting the delete key. Then she discovered something annoying: an e-mail.

"I have this feeling it's going to get a whole lot better," he chirped while letting the water run. He continued in a similar lighthearted vein, nearly inaudible over the faucet.

"Damn it," she muttered under her breath, "another copy of the interview. How many of these things are there?"

There was also one in the memory stick, she noticed, increasingly annoyed, especially since her time was running out. She ripped it out and pocketed it, knowing what must be done.

Peter Moonbeam bounced out from behind the bathroom door just as Kunegunde pulled a sub-machinegun out from under her trench-coat, raking the room with sprays of bullets, his laptop exploding into fragments.

The look of horror on his face as he fell was priceless, collapsing on the floor, so much dead-weight.

After checking his left wrist, she dialed up Heller Rache and waited.

"Hello, sweetie, Momma's got a job for you."

She found no discernible pulse on Moonbeam, stepping over his lifeless form.

"Yeah, Moonbeam just sent that file to some guy named Armin Schreiber, that sap who works in Festival Programs?

"It would seem both Moonbeam's computer and Moonbeam himself have now crashed," she said, opening the door very quietly. "You'd better eliminate Schreiber and the file: no telling what he'll discover."

= = = = = = =
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.
© 2014

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