Monday, March 16, 2015

The Lost Chord: Chapters 53 & 54

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, Fictitia and her new friend Harper arrive at the old castle, pursued by Kunegunde, Heller and Scricci whom they quickly dispatch before they descend into the dungeon, led by Roth, to rescue Cameron and revive Dr. Kerr. Fictitia makes an unexpected discovery. And Dr. Kerr discovers that Roth has succeeded in figuring out the map from the bottom of the statue, almost. Meanwhile, Tr'iTone tries to solve the riddle to finding the Fountain of Inspiration inside the Festspielhaus as Leahy-Hu and the IMPs storm the old castle. A New York City detective receives a call for help from a friend in Germany that he feels needs looking into.

= = = = = = =
Chapter 53

It was convenient that someone had left the keys in the car when they parked out front at the castle, but Lionel Roth wasn't used to driving after years in New York, always taking the subway, bus or train everywhere he needed to go, on special occasions splurging for a cab. Not that he wanted to call this a vacation, the way it was turning out, but it was the first time he'd been away from the city in over a decade. Too bad he couldn't find a cab out here in the woods because this was a very special occasion, alerting Dhabbodhú to the miscalculation concerning the exact location of his goal. He thought his friend, Dr. Dhabbodhú, would take the news very philosophically but how would this Tr'iTone fellow react?

It took so long to start the car, he was afraid he'd flood the engine before it roared to life, a deafening riot of noises echoing all through the trees and rocks that must have startled every bat on the mountain top into action or wakened every monster in their caves. Careening down the hillside, Roth, convinced he was being chased by thousands of rats, stepped heavily on the gas. At one point, he nearly collided with the remains of some beast.

Fortunately, the broken beast turned out to be a badly mangled bike and the rats never left the woods. He arrived safely, if rattled, pulling in behind the Festspielhaus to park. Even if the lot was entirely empty, Roth was sure he'd get a ticket if he wasn't properly parked. But unfortunately Roth found all the doors across the back were locked, ready to set off the security alarms. The only way in was through this hole in the outer wall.

How he'd get inside was one thing; how he'd step over the body of a dead security guard, another. Judging from the angle of the neck, he wasn't lying there asleep.

Roth tip-toed around the body, aware whoever did this was probably inside.

And who was inside? Dhabbodhú or... Tr'iTone...?

Roth could tell it was a huge building, not some tiny provincial theater that was all charm and no practicality, with its tiny little stage and no space backstage to speak of. From the outside, this building looked vast, but from the inside he knew it would only be more intimidating.

And where inside would he find Tr'iTone, since Roth had no idea what it was he was looking for? He could be anywhere from the basement to the auditorium's massive chandelier.

Mentioning the chandelier reminded him of that time he'd gone backstage after a performance of Phantom of the Opera to meet a friend playing a minor role and he got lost, running into strangers wearing these strange costumes, staring at him and laughing as if he were the weird one.

It was like being in a fun house on Halloween, he remembered, turning these corners, each scarier than the last, until he began having a panic attack, unable to breathe or scream. He fainted into the arms of someone in diaphanous robes – a vampire? – but could recall nothing more beyond that.

He dreamed it took weeks before anyone managed to find his body, dangling from the chandelier, drained of blood. Ever since, seeing the show's iconic poster made him gasp for air.

Lionel knew he could not run away: he needed to warn Dhabbodhú. He couldn't just hide back at the castle. There was something important, even cathartic, he knew he needed to face. He owed it to Dr. Dhabbodhú, his mentor, to set him straight because he deserved at least that much. And besides, the very thought of him running back through those woods was more than he could possibly handle, facing the rats and bats, the wolves and who knew what else.

But how could he figure out where Dhabbodhú – or Tr'iTone – had gone, the one such a stranger to him? He held his breath, closed his eyes, listening for the slightest impulse. Suddenly he felt something suggest he should open this door, follow that hallway, take those steps, walk this way.

To say he was scared out of his wits was an understatement, in the darkness his eyes bulging with fear, so pale his body already looked like it was drained of blood. Somehow, he found himself standing around backstage among these dark and terrifying shapes with their deep and horrifying shadows.

From somewhere far above him, he heard a noise that startled him, like the clattering of feet on metal.

"Hello," Roth called out, "is that you," his voice barely a whisper.

The clattering on the steps stopped abruptly – then a moment of silence.

"Hello...?" Roth stammered, more timidly than before.

"Who's there..." The voice above sounded impatient. The steps resumed, spiraling upwards.

"It's me, Dr. Dhabbodhú," Roth continued hesitantly, "I mean, Mr. Tr'iTone... sir."

Once again, the clattering stopped and waited.

Roth looked up, craning his neck backwards until he felt himself on the verge of dizziness with the effort. He could see nothing in the darkness above him but more darkness.

"Mr. Roth?" The voice paused.

"Yessir..." Roth stepped deeper into the shadows.

"What the hell are you doing here?"

"I have something important to..."

"Can't hear you. Come up here – now!"

Roth stumbled between the dark threatening shapes and found the iron staircase.

Reaching out, he touched it – and froze.

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

Immediately, Skripasha Scricci, former glam rocker, began screaming like a little girl when six black-clad agents barged through the door with AK-47s drawn and ready, their flashlights cutting brilliantly through the gloom.

"What an odd sight," Leahy-Hu thought, as she stepped into the room. "Could tonight get any stranger? Not possible..."

Scricci sat there completely naked, struggling in the lap of Schweinwald board member Barry Scarpia who failed to respond. When Scricci tried to escape, he and Scarpia collapsed in a heap.

They discovered Scricci was tied to Scarpia who was obviously quite dead, rigor mortis having already begun setting in. Apparently, Scarpia was killed first, Scricci added as an adornment more recently. Scricci looked like he'd been attacked by some manic face-painter with a pathological disposition, escaped from some street fair.

Judging from the detail, he must have been fully decorated while unconscious, the result of blunt force trauma from behind, the scalp and hair still bloody from the wound, Agent Manina noted. He had been painted by someone armed with a black indelible marker on the face, chest, abdomen and buttocks.

Aside from cat whiskers on his face, his scrawny chest and abdomen were covered with words like an inscription: "I'm a drug-dealing, talentless, skanky pervert and also an evil SHMRG ho."

Only a few feet inside the next room was another odd sight, like two struggling figures encased in cocoons, trussed up in a pair of rugs bound with fancy curtain cords. Another precaution, they'd been tied around the base of a heavy lamp: these two wouldn't be going anywhere fast.

Though not quite as visible as Scricci, they were no less recognizable.

"They're Schweinwald Security officers," Agent Leise said.

But Agent Manina swept her flashlight across their squirming faces and smiled.

"It would appear they also fell victim to the same pathological face-painter," Leahy-Hu noted, after taking a closer look.

On their foreheads someone had also scrawled, "I'm a SHMRG ho, too."

"I suspect there will be a much deeper story, here," Leahy-Hu added. "That ink will not wash off easily."

Without ceremony, agents hauled the rug-bound 'SHMRG hoes' out to the van, handcuffing the naked Scricci to both of them, while the others cased the rest of the castle, finding nobody else. They soon located the dungeon's broadcast studio with evidence of what someone calling himself Tr'iTone had been up to. The computer and its printer were warm, the contraption attached to the stone table was still operational, if ineffectual. Agent Leise turned down the volume on the CD player's broadcast feed.

Leahy-Hu pulled the microphone to her and, speaking carefully over the music (she'd always wanted to be a DJ): "We interrupt this broadcast of Mr. Tr'iTone's Symphony Whose Time Has Come. I apologize for the inconvenience: according to international laws regarding internet piracy, it seems its time has indeed come."

With that, Agent Leise ceremoniously yanked various cords out of their receptacles once Leahy-Hu stepped back and gave the signal. Finally, the music ended abruptly in the middle of another meandering phrase. Leahy-Hu looked with satisfaction from one agent to the other, her lips pursed in a rarely seen, tight smile.

"Thank God that one's over, but we still must locate the professor. Perhaps, he, too, is a 'SHMRG ho'?"

She also wondered if Kerr and Tr'iTone weren't one and the same.

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

"I can't believe you just happen to know someone in the New York City Police Department," Cameron said to Harper, once again thanking him for helping spread the word about Dylan's trouble.

"What can I say," Harper replied modestly. "But you mean you don't have a thing for guys in uniforms?"

I could imagine why Cameron chose not to respond to this directly, his mind focused on Dylan's immediate well-being. He kept his eye on the road while I tried to nap.

Fictitia, feeling more like her old self, also thanked Harper for having a viola case full of extra toys that included things like fishing line and a black indelible marker pen.

"I like to be prepared: hey, you never know what's going to come up, right?" the young man said.

We'd narrowly avoided Leahy-Hu and her IMP agents who were pulling into the castle's parking area before we could escape. Harper spotted their van's arrival as Fictitia finished up her impromptu art-work. Being able to do that had restored her spirits after rescuing Cameron, though glad they'd always remain good friends.

Besides, she would long treasure the photos snapped of the unconscious Scricci, sorry she'll miss one of his reviving. Now to pick the very best one and post it everywhere on-line.

We didn't need to be detained on useless suspicions by Leahy-Hu again which we knew she would never understand, so Harper led the way to the castle's kitchen and its backdoor, skirting the side of the castle through what was once a garden, waiting till the agents made their entrance.

Once the screaming began, they could never hear us start the car, oblivious to our making a hasty get-away. Soon, we were flying away from Schweinwald Castle, back to the Festspielhaus.

Unable to nap, I'd suggested Fictitia tweet something to draw the IMP.

"Do you want them to catch us?"

"Not us – Tr'iTone," I answered, as we pulled into the parking lot.

"That's Kunegunde the Bitch's car," Fictitia said. "I guess Roth must have stolen it. Lot of that happening tonight..."

It was Harper who first stumbled upon the body of Officer Ritter. "Oh, no, it's Helmut! Somebody's broken his neck!"

Cameron looked around, hoping we were alone. "Another policeman friend of yours?"

"Yeah, he was more than a chat-buddy. A great Doomcraft player, too."

"Can anybody explain what's next?" Fictitia asked.

I had an idea: if Harper alerted his friend Agitato, a known double-agent, with news of the officer's death, it might draw him into the game and help us capture Tr'iTone.

"It could also mean he and Tr'iTone team up and capture us," Cameron considered, not sure how it'd work.

"If the IMP's monitoring Fictitia's tweets, see – they want to catch SHMRG..."

"The trick is getting everybody here at the same time," Harper said. "Okay, Doc, that sounds like a plan!"

Harper stayed behind to contact his friend Agitato and report Kunegunde was headed into the Festspielhaus to confront Ritter's killer.

Meanwhile, we barged inside into the darkness, not sure where to turn.

"Look," Cameron pointed out, "someone's left these doors open, like a trail."

Following the path soon led us backstage.

Roth barely made it to the fourth step before we saw him.

"Lionel, wait," Cameron called out to him.

"Who else is there, Mr. Roth?" Tr'iTone's voice boomed through the darkness.

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

Agitato hadn't heard back from Kunegunde or Rache and was getting concerned but if Agent Lott started getting any nosier, it would only put him more at risk whenever they did call. Did they apprehend Cameron and the professor and bring them back to the hotel as The Chief had ordered? Had they terminated the broadcast that had illegally commandeered so many frequencies? He should probably contact Officer Ritter, too, just to check on him, in case he's napping on the job.

Agent Lott was busy tracking the internet chatter about the pirate broadcaster, noticing the favorable comments outweighed the negative though most of those were about where their regular programs had gone. Given the popular taste for unmitigated dreck, she wasn't surprised this Tr'iTone fellow had a hit on his hands.

Agitato picked up his private phone as soon as it started vibrating, something Agent Lott did not fail to notice, especially after he swiveled his chair around, turning his back to her. But it wasn't Kunegunde, he noticed, it was that cute chat-friend of his in the orchestra, Harper the violist.

"My officers are out at the castle and everything's under control, Harper."

"Thanks, Preston, but..." Harper said, sounding worried.

"Is everything else okay, Harper? I'm not off duty till after 7:00."

"Well, I stopped by to see Helmut who's bored as hell and... I saw Kunegunde running off into the building. It looks like Helmut's dead. Hey, I gotta get outta here... bye!"

Agitato tried calling Ritter on his headset but there was no response. Calling Kunegunde's phone got no response, either.

Without looking at Agent Lott, he bolted out the door and ran over to the rear of the Festspielhaus. He found Ritter's body and realized Harper was right: Helmut was dead.

He called Kunegunde again but went straight to voice-mail. He sounded frantic.

"Where are you? Why aren't you answering?"

Then Agitato heard a noise.

Agent Lott suddenly appeared, her pistol raised.

Agitato took off, dashing for Kunegunde's car.

"IMP! Stop – or I'll shoot!"

He didn't stop, so she shot him.

Chapter 54

If he didn't have to explain more about his call from Germany, Noranik figured his secret might well remain safe. He needed to keep his 'Ryan Goodcop' identity undercover (so to speak). What a coincidence Harper should've texted him at this particular moment, though, just when all this was going down.

"He's an informant, okay?" Det. Noranik explained. "He helps me out with things happening in the local music scene. This summer, turns out he's working in Bavaria, some summer music festival."

Noranik had partnered up with Det. Larson as they drove their unmarked cars over to the 86th Street address. It felt good supplying info that could break the case – cases, actually. Larson was also working on a barely credible case involving some homeless woman recently coming out of a coma.

"I mean, why should the drug business be the only one with deep connections, right?" he had started telling her. "This kid hears someone needing help through his internet connections," he added. "All because someone knew someone who knew something and it comes home to roost here. It's a small world."

What Det. Larson found surprising was how it related to this woman who insisted she was Elizabeth du Hicquè but had been brought in as a Jane Doe suffering a stroke.

Det. Noir, asking his ex-colleagues for help in this murder case, was intrigued. "Yeah, it happened in my precinct but the guy lived in yours and these two suspects did, too." He's tracking down any connections he can find with Dhabbodhú and Roth before the FBI horns in, claiming jurisdiction.

Then here's this woman witnesses say is Elisabeth du Hicquè living in du Hicquè's house: doesn't everything seem legit? After all, who would believe a rambling old bag-lady in a hospital?

But surveillance of Dhabbodhú's phone indicated a text sent earlier this evening had originated from the du Hicquè house.

"Maybe the old woman in the hospital wasn't so crazy, ya know?"

Regardless, now they didn't need to wait till morning for a warrant: one du Hicquè was holding a hostage.

Noranik was impressed how quickly they tracked down this Dylan guy's phone, using their low-key, barely functional GPS monitoring software once they plugged in the various codes from his frequently forwarded text. It was like watching one of those fancy cop shows on TV, still a far cry from police reality. IT was able to pinpoint the origin of his distress call's 'cyberprint' to an exact address just off Broadway. The question now was figuring out how dangerous the situation might be.

If the Elisabeth du Hicquè living at that address was using an assumed identity, was she a bomb-making terrorist? Considering what she'd sent Dhabbodhú, what was the nature of her threat? Was she in some way Dhabbodhú's accomplice or maybe the criminal mastermind? Regardless, they considered her armed and dangerous.

Two unmarked cars pulled up in front of the brownstone, blocking traffic, as four detectives poured out into the street. Casing the neighborhood – a nice block on a quiet night – they nodded. Within seconds, they filed up the front steps and took their positions. A neighbor walking her dog hurried past.

"Ms. du Hicquè, I'm with the NYPD," Larson said, ringing the doorbell. "Like to ask you a few questions?"

No response. She tried again.

"Wait, shouldn't somebody be going around back?"

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

Standing there, Roth remained silent, looked up, then looked back at us, not taking his hand off the railing, motionless. It was obvious he was afraid to move either up or down. We heard the noise of someone far above us continuing to climb – probably Tr'iTone – but where was he going?

"Well, Mr. Roth, are you coming or not?" the gruff voice demanded. After pausing momentarily, he then resumed climbing.

What was it he was searching for? Why look for it here?

"Lionel, please, think about it, what you'd said back at the castle," I mentioned as calmly as I could while I stepped closer to him at the bottom of the stairs.

"No, you don't understand, I have to do this," he said, whispering. "Old loyalties die hard," he added emphatically.

I lit the flashlight taken from Kunegunde, holding it under my chin and pointing it up to illuminate my face. I thought it might be more reassuring if Roth could see me.

Unfortunately, I'd forgotten how, when we'd do this in a darkened room, it looked like a disembodied, distorted image.

Instead of calming him down, Roth gasped and stumbled with a clatter, banging into the iron handrail behind him. Once he regained his balance, he then scrambled blindly up the stairs.

"Mr. Roth, you're not alone?" the reverberant voice boomed forth once more. "Come, you must hurry: there is no time." His voice echoed through the vast space, wave after wave of evil.

"Lionel, stop – don't do this," I said, "you really don't have to."

"Is that Dr. Kerr, the illustrious musicologist?"

"I'm not a musicologist," I said defensively. "I just write about music."

It annoyed me how everybody assumed, just because you're a scholarly musician, that automatically makes you a trained musicologist.

"What are you doing here, now, professor?" Tr'iTone sneered, even more annoyed. "I left you back at the castle. What, did you do a good deed and untie him, Mr. Roth?"

Roth by now had finally reached the first landing, his breathing labored.

That was when I heard more footsteps.

"Yes, but I hear voices over here," I heard a man say, one used to giving orders and being obeyed.

The footsteps came closer, suddenly aware they needed to be more stealthy.

I signaled Cameron and shut off my flashlight. He did the same. We stepped behind some large set piece.

Somebody hit something not far off, and I heard a woman's voice.

"Dammit, I can't see a bloody thing!"

LauraLynn! I recognized her voice.

The cast of characters had now expanded.

SHMRG was the first to arrive, no doubt coming from the hotel, but how many agents, I couldn't tell. If that was their CEO, he rarely ever traveled without an entourage.

The IMP had been out at the castle. How long would it take before they'd arrive on the scene?

It hadn't occurred to me before that SHMRG might be holding LauraLynn. I'd always assumed it was our villain, Dhabbodhú. Who had made that threat, before? How were her fingers holding up? It sounded like such a barbaric thing to be so heartlessly cold-blooded. We were up against someone very cruel.

I wasn't sure what SHMRG's role in this whole thing was, anyway. For obvious reasons, Leahy-Hu wasn't very forthcoming. If SHMRG was responsible for Rob's murder, who the hell was Tr'iTone?

"Mr. Roth, I think you've been followed," the voice from above snarled. "That was not very bright, you know..."

Tr'iTone, even more angrily, stomped his foot, sending shivers through the iron.

"You must lead them away, Mr. Roth: I have work to do and very little time to do it."

"But there's something important to tell you, Mr. Tr'iTone, sir," Roth squeaked.

That didn't seem to slow Tr'iTone down.

"I still can't hear you, Mr. Roth, you must come up here."

"Is that you... Tr'iTone?" It's an authoritative voice used to giving orders.

"There is no time," Tr'itone continued snarling.

"I'm the CEO of SHMRG, and I'm here to negotiate with you."

Steele explained how he'd trade Ms. Harty's journal for Dr. Richard Kerr.

"Well, you're in luck – he's here, somewhere!"

That sounded like our cue to escape, but how, in this darkness? I could barely see Cameron standing beside me. I knew there was a wall here; the stage was over there. If I turned on my flashlight, I knew they'd find us easily – or when I splatted against the wall.

There was no place to run and not many places to hide. They would find us sooner or later.

Then it occurred to me, what had happened to Fictitia and Harper?

"Terry, if you're here, don't show yourself," LauraLynn hollered from the wings.

Then Steele ordered someone to gag her.

"No," a new voice said, breathing heavily, "let me take this one."

A large silhouette of a man dragged LauraLynn out onto the stage, and tied her to the light stand.

"Dr. Kerr, meet Ms. Harty," the man said menacingly. "Come out – now!"

Here's another fine mess we found ourselves in.

"I do not want Ms. Harty," Tr'iTone snorted. "Just leave the journal."

"Or we could catch Kerr and keep the journal, too," Steele answered.

"That is not very gentlemanly of you..."

The man with LauraLynn – wasn't that Tr'iTone? But he's climbing the staircase...

Cameron tapped me on the shoulder. "Look!"

I noticed a crack in the wall.

"What's that up – a head?"

= = = = = = =
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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