Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Lost Chord: Chapters 55 & 56

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, Roth makes his escape to the Festspielhaus to find and warn Tr'iTone of the miscalculation he'd made, followed later by Kerr and the others. Back at the old castle, Leahy-Hu and her IMPs discover the highly adorned Scricci tied to the body of Barry Scarpia. In New York, the detectives arrive at the Widow du Hicquè's brownstone. Backstage at the Schweinwald opera house, it's turning into quite a party with even more arrivals...

= = = = = = =
Chapter 55

"Yeah," Moonbeam kept stammering, "what's up with that?" still dwelling on having been left for dead, his computer completely destroyed, then hearing the guy he'd just sent Sullivan's interview to shot down. Maybe it wasn't just his coming on a little too strongly to that security babe ("hey, no harm trying")? Could it be something about Sullivan's opera that would drive people to become so evil and violent like this? Was that what this was all about, the cut-throat competition around premieres?

He'd heard rumors how the New Music business was becoming increasingly competitive but frankly wasn't this a bit much? Sure, there was never enough grant money around and fewer prizes available. Were all those no-longer-young composers over 30, past most competitions' age limits, suddenly upping the tension out of desperation?

If Sullivan had been murdered because of some New Music turf war, eliminated because of his aesthetic and stylistic convictions, is this the way discordant factions would be settling their scores, now? Anyone gunning down followers of Schoenberg's Method of Composing with Twelve Tones would now be called 'serialist' killers, right?

And yet more than half of your typical concert-goers couldn't even tell the difference between serialism and simple atonality, much less being merely chromatic and only sounding like it wasn't tonal.

Peter Moonbeam had long opined the increasingly vicious rhetoric between the Complexity Cartel and the Populists of the 99%. Composers and critics disagreed about similar issues going back a thousand years. Such rhetoric was escalating the drug wars, endangered life on the streets, and increasingly destabilized national and international politics.

Would there now be mass shootings at symphony concerts because someone didn't like the new piece that'd been programmed? Could an angry patron, rather than walking out, shoot a musician instead?

What if, instead of taking pot shots at them in the press, rival 19th Century composers shot each other in cold blood outside the concert halls and opera houses of Europe?

What if some music journalist had gotten himself killed in the cross-fire, interviewing Wagner one day, Brahms the next?

Such thoughts only increased Moonbeam's fears as he stood in the dark, waiting till it might be safe to leave. He had no idea where he was hiding, beyond the Festspielhaus basement. But the smell in here was beginning to become obnoxious, almost overpowering, and he longed to light another cigar.

Feeling around in the darkness, he found a place he could sit down but wasn't sure what it was, other than being a little too lumpy with something sticky on it.

He fumbled, trying to recall which pocket he'd slipped his phone into after he'd heard that burst of gunfire and the killer's voice before the line (including Schreiber) had gone dead.

"Ah, there it is," he sighed, relieved, holding it up to get his bearings with its pale, luminescent glow.

He turned slowly around in a full circle, and calmly took note of the various surroundings he managed to recognize: basically a cluttered storage room which didn't leave much space to spare. Moving the phone lower, he noticed a bench – no, a divan ("cool!") – that lumpy thing must be a mannequin...

"But what's that sickening smell?" That's when he stepped in something tacky.

Eyes closed, he found the light switch.

When he opened them again, he discovered the mannequin wasn't a mannequin.

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

Behind the iron stairwell floated the distorted image of a disembodied head.

"Great," I thought, "the opera house is haunted!"

"Come on," Cameron whispered, tugging my arm, "let's get out of here!"

After seeing that ghostly face before us, I was ready to leave but by running in the opposite direction.

In the dark, I hadn't noticed a crack in the wall before. Was it a result of the explosion? Why was Cameron pulling me toward it: could I fit through it?

The crack, as it widened almost imperceptibly, turned itself into a doorway that led to a large open space. The face that began beckoning to us turned out to be Fictitia's. She was holding the other flashlight under her chin, beaming it upward.

"I wondered where you'd gone," Cameron said.

"Good timing!" Harper stood behind her and quickly pulled the door shut. "The IMP should be arriving soon," he added. After playing decoy with Agitato, he met Fictitia waiting in the hallway. After following her, then it was a matter of figuring out how to get us off the stage, unseen.

While she showed me her latest tweet, Fictitia explained if Leahy-Hu was following her, the IMP's aren't far behind: Our villain's been cornered backstage. This would sooo make an awesome opera!

I explained Tr'iTone was climbing the staircase but I had no idea what it was he might be looking for.

"Whatever it is, it's a dead end," Cameron said. "There's no exit?"

"Well, there's a door on each landing. He could come back down this stairway," Harper pointed out, "and escape."

On this side of the wall was a criss-crossing flight of steps, open but sturdy, with a substantial hand-rail.

"You stay, block his escape," Harper said. "We'll go play decoy again."

"Any idea how many landings there are?"

"Maybe six," Harper replied. "Why?"

Fictitia shined the flashlight along the stairs.

"Tr'iTone's probably headed for the fourth level," I said, remembering the clue.

Cameron took off up the steps and I tried to catch up.

"Maybe there's an elevator around here, somewhere?"

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

"Give us the professor," Steele said, "and you can have the journal. We know it's all part of your plan."

"I don't have the professor, but he was here a minute ago."

"Don't expect me to fall for that."

"Don't tell me you've already let him get away?" Tr'itone taunted him.

"More importantly," Steele continued, "we'll give you the journal and help you realize your plan, rather than acting alone."

"But I like acting alone," Tr'iTone said. "Geniuses don't play on teams."

"No, that's true," Steele agreed, "because geniuses, like me, direct the team."

Tr'iTone's laughter cascaded down like metallic shards.

"You play fast and loose with terminology, whoever you think you are."

Widor began moving around the perimeter of the light, looking for someone.

"Come out, professor, we know you're here..."

"You want to blow this place up and, basically, so do I." Steele could feel the tension continuing to build.

"Who said I want to blow this place up? Perhaps you're mistaken."

"No? Tomorrow's the first rehearsal for Sullivan's opera – his unfinished new opera. Isn't that what you seek to stop?"

"I've found that which I have come to seek," Tr'iTone shouted impatiently, "or will if you leave me alone."

"We've eliminated Sullivan. Give us Dr. Kerr and we'll eliminate him, too."

"I killed Robertson Sullivan," Tr'iTone spat emphatically. "I killed him repeatedly. I killed him every night in my dreams. And then, once I had the chance, I killed him for real."

LauraLynn couldn't believe that she was hearing this and broke down, sobbing, recalling the image of that disfigured face.

Steele began to wonder about this Tr'iTone, regardless of his so-called plan: he began sounding like a real nut-case. If he made an ally of him, was he to be trusted?

"Whatever you say, Tr'iTone, but I don't believe you," Steele shot back.

"Believe whatever you want..." Tr'iTone sounded weary.

"I happen to know Widor, here, killed Robertson Sullivan."

Widor stepped forward.

"Because I told him to do it, all part of my plan. But you'll never pin anything on me!"

"What is it that we will never pin on you, Mr. Steele?"

The voice sounded full of confidence, genuinely inquisitive, as Yoda Leahy-Hu's tiny silhouette appeared on the apron of the stage.

Immediately, several pistols were drawn and cocked; machine-guns, quickly raised, pointed at the little shadow on the light's perimeter.

Behind her, a dozen black-clad shapes materialized, machine-guns also raised and ready, fanning out across the dimly lit stage, taking up their positions beside and eventually in front of their Director.

LauraLynn, kneeling on the floor and handcuffed to the stage's lone light-source, looked around fearfully, caught in the middle. Widor began backing off toward his fellow agents, away from the light.

There was a scuffling of feet as SHMRG agents took up positions behind the set pieces littering the stage.

The steady clanking of feet on metal steps continued ascending from above despite Roth struggling valiantly to narrow the distance.

"Mr. Roth, it sounds like you're missing quite a party," Tr'iTone said.

"Wait for me, Mr. Tr'iTone," Roth panted. "It is urgent I speak with you."

That's not why Tr'iTone stopped.

"I have attained the highest level, a seeker and Right-Believer," Tr'iTone boomed, his voice echoing through the opera house. "Oh, Great Beethoven," he intoned, "prepare to receive me as your equal!"

Chapter 56

Lionel Roth stood on the steps, dizzy for any number of reasons, not the least being his fear of heights. He'd been running up a circular staircase, his brain in a whirl. The steps rocked from side to side – and when he looked down, he felt suspended over dark, empty space. So many fears on his list of fears were in play now, he was unable to calculate them all because his mind hadn't stopped spinning sufficiently – even after he stood still.

He was afraid to open his eyes and somehow afraid not to. He gripped the railing, his feet frozen. What if he'd trip over the handrail or slip between the steps? What if some screw above him came undone from the extra weight and the steps slowly began to unravel?

From the landing he had finally reached by great effort of will, Roth looked up where Tr'iTone stood above him, his arms outstretched, palms upwards, his head tilted back in ecstatic anticipation. From here, Roth could easily understand the true immensity of the man: he's revealed himself to be a giant.

And that only made short little, puny Lionel Roth a mere insignificance in the greater scheme of important things, without talent, without even the lowliest skills, lacking the self-confidence of worthiness.

Tr'iTone glanced down the steps toward the shivering inferiority of Lionel Roth, reluctant to break his concentration by sneering.

"Mr. Roth, please," he whispered to him. "Couldn't this wait till later?"

Did he shake his head 'no' or was it more his fear? Roth felt his ankles turn to jelly.

"Can you hear me now?" he croaked. Roth went to step forward but found himself incapable of any movement.

"Be quick, Roth. Your trembling is shaking the staircase."

Tr'iTone looked down.

"Mr. Tr'iTone, sir, I'm sorry," Roth squeaked, "but I made a mistake calculating the puzzle you had given me. The path ended up reversed: your goal is back near the castle."

There was the briefest silence. Even the others sensed what was coming.

"You cretin!" Tr'iTone exploded. "You incomparable maladroit!"

From the stage floor, everyone momentarily forgot everybody else and looked up as Tr'iTone erupted into a rage against Roth. No one had any doubt who was going to win this fight.

"Poor Lionel Roth," Leahy-Hu said, nodding knowingly, recalling many past personnel reviews, "an introvert caught in an extrovert's world."

Even if nothing physical happened, the emotional damage Mr. Roth would suffer could haunt his darkest moments for years. Being taunted by childhood bullies never made corporate life easier to bear.

Perhaps the distraction could come in handy, as she weighed the situation: could she take Widor down by himself, confined in a nearly dark space with a stageful of SHMRG agents? She always preferred to avoid a gunfight, hesitant about losing anyone on her team if she could avoid it.

Who was this 'Tr'iTone' Roth was up against? Was there some reason this fellow's name rang such a distant bell? Wasn't this the same guy the professor suspected of killing Robertson Sullivan?

"No," she reconsidered, "his name was Dhabbodhú or something close to that. But 'Tr'iTone,' now, that's something entirely different."

There was the founder of the 'Mi-Contra-Fa,' a new music terrorist group that flourished years ago – in the '70s. That would make this Tr'iTone a senior citizen, by now. Not likely...

"You dare tell me this, the greatest failure of your miserable life," Tr'iTone continued, "how you've caused this grievous error and by your unimaginably inconsiderate carelessness made me waste my precious time!?"

Even in the darkness, Leahy-Hu imagined she could see a pair of eyes glowing hotly from far above her.

Widor looked up and cringed to hear this stream of vitriolic abuse, similar to what he'd experienced earlier tonight. Roth made his mistake, he wouldn't deny, but did he deserve this?

"You loathsome spawn of a scurrilous moron, you infinitesimal waste of sperm, you and your irreparable miscalculation," Tr'iTone thundered, "do you have any idea of the inconvenience and embarrassment you've caused?"

Steele looked up, his admiration rapidly increasing for any man who'd produce such a steady stream of mind-numbing cruelty.

"You superficial spasm of malodorous flotsam," Tr'iTone continued, his head flailing from side to side, spit flying, in his anger, "it even took computer software to help you crash and ignominiously burn!"

Steele wanted to continue the negotiation process, involving him in Operation Mephisto, but also to offer him a vice-presidency.

"There is no time left," Tr'iTone bellowed, "my moment is at hand!" He pounded his fists on the handrail. "Now I must return to Schweinwald Castle! Is anyone else so stupid!?"

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

"Wait, this must be... the landing... we're looking for," I told Cameron, resting against the door to catch my breath. "Hear that...? Sounds like Roth and Tr'iTone... must be having... an argument." Cameron was half way up to the next landing when I stopped, huffing and puffing to beat the band.

"I am sick and tired of your constant picking on me, treating me like I'm some kind of idiot!"

I had never imagined Roth could have such authority in his voice.

"If you had an ounce of intelligence, there would've been no mistake and I wouldn't be here," Tr'iTone shouted.

"I must conquer my fears," Roth yelled, "so, I must overcome you!"

I pushed the door open onto the landing and heard a scream.

There went Tr'iTone, flying over the railing!

= = = = = = =
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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