In the previous installment of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, the official start of the novel itself, following the introductory "Intermezzo," Dr. T. Richard Kerr and his friend and assistant, Cameron Pierce, are on a train from snow-bound London, though it takes a while for Kerr to figure this out. Thinking back to events earlier in the day, they are running late to meet LauraLynn Harty and her soon-to-be husband, Burnson Allan, for breakfast at the Mandeville Hotel on their way to a late-morning rehearsal for that evening's concert, including the world premiere of a suite from an opera by her late cousin (and Kerr's childhood friend), Robertson Sullivan. In the midst of the conversation, Cameron sees an article in the morning paper about his friend composer Howard Zenn.
(If you've only just arrived and have no clue what's going on, you might find it easier to start with the introductory post, here.)
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Chapter One, continued...
LauraLynn quickly turned the paper over to see what Cameron was pointing at – a familiar photo smiling from the back page, the standard portrait of American composer Howard Zenn, turning 100 in three weeks. The new music world was buzzing with anticipation about concerts celebrating the event; the rest of the world, not so much.
There were so many things to tell LauraLynn after having just spent two days with him at his 'chalet' outside Garmisch-Partenkirchen and getting to ride in his private plane when he left for Munich.
"What's the article about," I asked, "a review of his new string quartet?" He'd finished it only a few months ago.
"No," Cameron said, shaking his head in disbelief. "You'd better read it, Terry."
"What's the matter," I said, reaching for the paper before LauraLynn had finished. I couldn't see it from where I sat.
HOWARD ZENN, 99
GETTING READY FOR 100th BIRTHDAY
"OMG," I gasped, as I continued reading aloud.
= = = = = = =
It was just three weeks before what would have been his 100th birthday. There were celebratory concerts planned around the world.
"But we just saw him yesterday," I continued. "He dropped us off at the Munich airport after we'd left the chalet. He looked fine, didn't he," I asked Cameron, "especially for someone pushing 100."
"Actually, he looked fine for someone pushing 75," Cameron added, taking the paper. He continued reading the article. "What could've happened?"
"Who wrote this article, the real estate editor?" Annoyed, I took back the paper in disbelief and resumed reading out loud.
"This is bogus," Cameron complained, "it says nothing about his music or career?"
LauraLynn reached over, putting her hand on mine.
Shaking his head, Burnson added the Drang only recently played Zenn's 2nd Quartet.
Skimming ahead through biographical material that was no doubt copied verbatim from Wikipedia, I found this bit at the very end:
He had his supporters and won numerous prizes.
"Arid" I squawked. "I just can't believe it – Howard Zenn is dead! Geez..."
LauraLynn sat back. "Remember our visit last year?"
"Yeah," Cameron said, "when we were trying to find that Fountain of Inspiration."
"Those agents broke in, bullets flying, bodies everywhere... and Zenn just sat there!"
"Yeah, meditating on that statue – in another world..."
For Burnson's amusement, we proceeded to re-live our encounter with Zenn last summer during the course of our thrilling Schweinwald adventure, telling him how we'd found his mountain-top castle, how LauraLynn had been kidnapped...
I didn't realize she hadn't told him everything about this part of it, wondering why she kicked me under the table.
Cameron cut in, saying how Zenn was so instrumental in solving the case and helping us bring Rob's murderer to justice.
"Yeah, what will SHMRG have to say now about all those centennial celebrations?"
"Oh, here's something else I just remembered," my heart skipping a beat – "How will Schnellenlauter react after hearing about this? That is, if he hasn't heard already? They had a close personal relationship."
"Oh, I hadn't thought of that," Burnson said. "He's to conduct Zenn's Phosphorion and something else, part of January's Centenary Celebration."
"Wasn't that the violin concerto he'd talked about?" LauraLynn couldn't remember the title. Trevor, meanwhile, showed up bearing plates of food.
"The Tetragrammaton or something like that," I said. "Bitch of a piece, too."
Just as our breakfast arrived, I started thinking how I was already looking ahead to lunch, meeting Schnelly after dress rehearsal. Would we be able to keep this from him until after the concert?
"It might be very difficult for him, tonight, depending how well he takes the news of Zenn's death," I told them.
I was feeling guilty, tucking into my eggs, knowing the friend I'd been laughing with a day ago was now dead. It didn't matter if he was almost 100, it was still a shock. Most people would be saying, given his age, "He'd led a full life," or maybe, "it's not like it was unexpected."
You're right, I suppose, noting the silence in which we all began eating, he might be considered lucky given the alternatives: a long, full life, healthy to the end, no illness or demoralizing decay.
If I remembered it right, Schnellenlauter had given Zenn his first successful premiere in Europe after the war, the Chronomicron Overture when Zenn was in his early-30s, still unknown, and Schnellenlauter a promising conductor. It was a difficult piece requiring extra rehearsals, not a safe risk for a budding career, considering the orchestra hated it.
Schnellenlauter went on to become a champion of the so-called 'difficult' new music and Zenn felt vindicated his style was playable and, when well-played, capable of making dramatic, visceral sense despite its technical density.
It was during a radio interview before a Boston concert in the mid-1970s – he was conducting the American premiere of Tetragrammaton – I heard him say, "a bad performance of Beethoven was the conductor's fault, but a bad performance of a world premiere was always the composer's fault: listeners would never think to blame the conductor."
After a few minutes of contemplative silence while everything else buzzed around us, Burnson put down his fork, looking at LauraLynn. He had the serious air of one about to make a solemn statement.
"I may as well tell you this, now, since it will never happen: I'd commissioned Zenn to write something for Schnelly."
LauraLynn looked like she was about to cry. Schnellenlauter would be 90, soon, and what better way to celebrate his career?
"I had suggested maybe a short orchestral work, something about ten minutes long."
"What did he say? Did he accept it?" There was the implied hope he'd already started it, maybe even finished it.
Burnson said he'd only sent him the official request a couple months ago.
"He hadn't mentioned anything about it while we were there," I told them, "but if it's supposed to be a surprise..."
"He said he'd finished the new string quartet in time for its premiere with a ton of requests to sift through – he'd promised an oboe quintet and a piano trio which he'd already begun – but he would be delighted to honor Schnelly if he had the chance". Of course, any commitment would be a gamble.
"When he wrote back, he said he was thinking he might call it From One Old-Timer to Another or maybe Saturnicon. Oh well, I can always frame the letter and give it to him."
LauraLynn thought the letter would be a very nice gesture, its own tribute, and wondered if Burnson had it with him. "You could frame it and present it to him tonight, after the concert."
"I don't know, maybe not right away," Burnson said after some lip-chewing consideration. "I'd rather see how he takes the news."
"It's like getting hit with two losses at the same time," I suggested, "not just Zenn's death both personally and professionally, but now the death of a piece of music that would never be."
LauraLynn continued, then, telling us how the rehearsal last night had gone well and how Schnelly was pleased with the students, especially Rob's piece (no matter what the title, it was always 'Rob's Piece'). She was annoyed he didn't want to come out for some drinks afterward, "but that's Schnelly," she said, shrugging her shoulders.
"Probably felt he needed to study the scores a little more," I said, "no matter how many times he's conducted them," making me think of a story I'd heard back in my student days. "He was always like that," I told them, probably for the tenth time, about his being a young assistant in Monaco. One of the other assistants who'd later become my conducting teacher told us how Schnellenlauter was always busy studying his scores – "before breakfast, during lunch, after dinner. Me? I'd rather go to the beach!"
How many times in his career had he conducted The Rite of Spring? Everybody does it these days, after its Centennial. Even the students today could play it at the drop of a hat. In addition to Rob's piece, he'd chosen Carter's Variations for Orchestra to open (Carter died recently, just before his 104th birthday).
"That reminds me, I wanted to call Schnellenlauter before the rehearsal," I said, getting out my phone, "confirming our lunch date."
It had been a running joke last summer, how I, a confirmed Luddite, refused to deal with having my own phone, always borrowing, then consequently inadvertently losing or destroying both Cameron's, then LauraLynn's phones.
I keyed in Schnelly's phone number and it went right to voice mail.
"Well," I said, "no doubt busy studying scores..."
Trevor took the emptied plates away almost imperceptibly which didn't keep Cameron from looking around like he was hoping for seconds. The main breakfast rush had already begun to subside even for a Monday. By now, the business crowd, sufficiently fortified, was off to seize the day, leaving in their wake the shoppers and tourists.
I caught a glimpse of an outside window or the reflection of one in a mirror (it was hard to tell) and noticed it was snowing much heavier than it was when we'd arrived.
"I was thinking we'd just wander around the area a bit," LauraLynn suggested, "spend time until the rehearsal starts at 11 – I mean, after Burnson heads to his office – but this weather's so dreadful..."
Trevor returned with a carafe of coffee and proceeded to fill everyone's cups, bringing another cup of Earl Grey for me.
"You could go 'round to see Wigmore Hall, if you've never been there," Burnson added, looking over the menu for dessert, lightly waving a hand off to his left. "It's right around the corner."
"Dessert, Burnson? Already?" LauraLynn smiled, adjusting her collar. He grinned at her sheepishly. "That'll mean an extra hour at the gym."
Amusing, now, I thought, considering how comfortable they'd become with each other, already: their tone could change to peevishness easily enough.
"Just a little pain au chocolate," he said, "you know it's my weakness."
"Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to have breakfast here," LauraLynn sighed.
"Because of a little chocolate bread?" I said.
They laughed. "No," she explained, "someplace a little closer to the Royal Academy."
"I'm sure if we ate somewhere else," Burnson said, "I could find something there that would be a weakness as well."
"We are within walking distance of Duke's Hall" – that's where the rehearsal is – "but given this weather, I'm thinking a cab..."
"And Madame Tussaud's is just down the block from there," Cameron chimed in.
"Despite all the hype about Madame Tussaud, I think I'd rather spend the morning not looking at horrifying dead bodies, thanks." It may be a tourist attraction but it wasn't high on my list.
Burnson ordered a slice of pain au chocolate even over LauraLynn's playful frown, adding two additional slices for Cameron and me.
"I hope all this snow won't affect the trains running tomorrow," I said, glancing back at the window (or its reflection).
"If you bring your stuff to my place, from that hotel you're in," LauraLynn insisted, "we could all leave together, then."
"Thanks, I do appreciate it, but I'd really like to take the train, and the hotel's just blocks from Victoria Station."
"But then, don't forget, you have to get from the station in Snaffingham out to the house, you know," LauraLynn said, adding a pesky detail that shouldn't be overlooked: "it's too far to walk."
"Not a problem," Burnson countered, his tone matter-of-fact. "I'll tell Vector to add you to the guest list for the chauffeur."
The idea of us pulling up to a grand old English country house in a limousine, even on a snowy day, sounded like an item for my Bucket List (even Cameron might agree, there). But I could understand LauraLynn's concern over the way this storm was developing, hoping nothing throws a wrench in her plans.
"No," she said, shaking her head for emphasis, "regardless of whatever we're thinking, there will be no problems with this wedding."
By now, looking into the snow, I could barely see across the street.
Even if the sleek limousine didn't quite fit, this porte-cochère came in handy while they unpacked the last of the luggage, protected from the heavy snow. In order to keep the trunk safely covered – "boot, they called it, here" – the windshield was left out in the open.
"I guess they didn't think the old boy'd ever be driving anything longer than a coach-and-pair," the taller man told himself. Despite the snow, he thought the place looked pretty creepy, maybe even haunted.
"That's it," the one they called Bieber said, rapping against the driver's window. "There's a garage around back – park it there." He motioned him forward like he's expecting someone to pull up behind him.
Igor Bieber held a clipboard in his hand and checked off another item.
"Done," he announced, "Mr. Steele should be pleased."
"Who?" The man beside him looked down at Bieber and his officious-looking clipboard, clearly having no difficulty hearing what he'd said. He pulled himself up to his full height and scowled back at Bieber. "The gentleman who just arrived is Osmond Goodwood. Be sure you remember it. I've no idea who this Mr. Steele is."
Bieber thought he looked like a six-and-a-half-foot scowl, some gargoyle come to life, wrapping his scarf more tightly around his neck. This was the new guy in Steele's entourage: Lucifer Darke, chief of operations.
Steele's private jet – well, Goodwood's – had arrived as the weather began to deteriorate, indicating things might be much worse than forecast. The drive from Heathrow was dangerous enough without blizzard-like conditions on these roads. Bieber was glad they'd arrived in one piece and he didn't have to go pushing this limo out of a ditch.
He went to go inside but Darke waited, glancing at the snow-covered trees, at the yard and bushes surrounding the house.
"The place looks dead," Darke said, heading inside. "Very nice – I like that."
Umberton was a shadow of its former self, a home to local churchmen: once stately, it was now gray with disuse. When he was sent to get it ready, Bieber felt an immediate dread. You could hardly say it 'cleaned up nicely,' still so dark and depressing, but at least it's only a temporary location.
Goodwood, also a shadow of his former self, followed his secretary Holly Burton as she led the way down the hall. Still uncomfortable navigating his wheelchair, he looked around, in the process missing little. Holly was telling him how she'd arrived yesterday to familiarize herself with everything, only to find a great deal left undone.
"Dust was everywhere with many boxes left unpacked, like they'd barely even started," she complained, "the kitchen only half-stocked with food. Mr. Banks had begun assembling the tech center, but was way behind schedule."
Nobody escaped her report unscathed, especially Mr. Bieber who was entirely to blame. "It had been his responsibility and he failed." Turning the corner, her footsteps continued to echo down the dark, empty corridor.
"These young staffers may seem eager to work," she sighed, unlocking a door, "but it just isn't the same, is it?"
"Nothing is ever the same," he told her, entering the suite of rooms that would be his home for the duration. There, Osmond Goodwood came face to face with the portrait of a lady. Except for the Victorian gown that she wore, she could've been his mother.
"Perhaps we're related," he said, making himself laugh.
"It's good to hear you laugh again, sir," Holly said, smiling at him. "It's been a very trying year, I know."
Without acknowledging her, he asked, "What kind of scotch does this place have?"
Osmond Goodwood, as he was now officially known, was the very first alias N. Ron Steele ever had needed to use since he'd turned his music licensing firm, SHMRG, into the powerhouse it's become. There's hardly a rock star or classical musician who wasn't in his pocket: every bit they earned meant more for him. He had taken SHMRG from a small company working with rock bands' agents, expanding into a ticket sales clearing house business until now, controlling most of the classical business as well, he was set.
In short, he was almost completely in control of the world's music industry. But the operative word was that pesky almost. And now those legal issues – speaking of pesky – meant SHMRG's becoming the first corporation to run for President was probably toast. To avoid being arrested for complicity to murder, he must become Osmond Goodwood.
"Mr. Banks has your computer center ready for you, sir," Holly told him. There sat a deskful of monitors and keyboards.
"Good old Monty – he may be a scoundrel, but he's an amazing one."
A crystal-clear image of Montgomery Banks, SHMRG's geeky IT Director, glasses and all, pinged into grinning existence on the central screen.
"Ah, good to see you, sir," Banks said with a knowing smirk, "I almost didn't recognize you in your new name. I have your connection set up with Director Lemm in Schweinwald," he added.
"Great," the man called Goodwood said, nodding approvingly until he noticed something's missing. "Holly, please go put the fear of God into the staff, would you," he added, "and see what's keeping my scotch?"
After she left, the man known as Goodwood asked Banks about the encryption, only to be assured they'd never locate him.
"Good, good," he nodded in response, "but you know, Monty, we can't have Lemm calling himself Director if we're The Director. Before we arrive in Germany, arrange it so our title is GOD – Generaloberdirektor."
Arthur Lemm's sycophantic face appeared on the screen as if executing a test of their connection before sitting back, slightly embarrassed. "Ah, my goodness, there you are, Ron," he said, "settling in at Umberton?"
"We're Osmond Goodwood, now, Lemm: please remember that! And yes, we're settling in quite nicely, here. Anything more on that wedding?"
"I can't wait to see your family's house," I said, as Burnson smiled: he'd seen Trevor approaching with three slices of thickly cut, dark brown bread.
"It was amazing, I admit, that first time I saw it," LauraLynn said, hiding her amusement as she sipped her coffee.
"Yeah, Americans are so into watching Downton Abbey, any grand old Victorian house could be a castle to us," Cameron said.
"Life among the aristocratic," I said, recalling Upstairs/Downstairs, "is exotic enough for me."
"I doubt Phlaumix Court could hold a candle to Highclere Castle (*)," Burnson said as he admired his slice of chocolate bread. "It's a very different sort of place, Phlaumix, and not nearly as massive."
"Yes, but you grew up in it, Burnson," LauraLynn said, "so it's different," not that she lacked experience in luxury's lap.
It was certainly a distinction for me between my family and Rob Sullivan's, back when we were children, 'have-nots' versus 'haves.' Despite his parents' fairly arrogant attitude about it, things were different with Rob. My parents, on the other hand, were a bit suspicious of his friendship, seeing it as a reinforcement of his superiority.
If LauraLynn couldn't relate to my financial realities, I had difficulty comprehending hers and I couldn't even begin to imagine Burnson's. Even Cameron's and Dylan's families were Manhattan bankers, well beyond my social level.
"That last bend around those rocks as the road turns toward the house," LauraLynn said, "that took my breath away, absolutely. You come out of the woods and there it is, this huge clearing." She savored the memory while sipping her coffee as if the recollection came from childhood memories rather than ones more recent.
"And in the center of this well-defined clearing, standing on its modest hill, is this enormous block of stone facing me, everything – its columns, its windows, those two rotundas – reflecting golden in the sunlight."
Instead of a limousine, I imagined we were pulling up in a carriage-and-four which seemed much more appropriate for the occasion until I realized I would need to be wearing white tie and tails. At that point, everything evaporated back into fantasy and better suited for summer. What would everything look like, covered in snow?
"You can call it a 'pile' if you want to, Burnson," she continued, eying him up over her cup of coffee, "but your entrance hall would outshine many a fine home I've been in. That spiral staircase is, as my Aunt Gracie would've said, 'to die for.' Any museum would covet your paintings and statues."
"That may be," Burnson admitted, "it is grand, but about the only things normal looking in the house are the doors, and even the way the doors are placed is off-center, like everything else."
This sounded very puzzling and I stopped nibbling at my slice of bread (a little too rich for my taste, frankly). "What do you mean by that, 'everything's off-center'?" I said, pushing it aside. It seemed every great European palace or ancient temple employed some mirror-like symmetry, finding an architectural balance around central focus points.
"He means," LauraLynn said, understanding my confused expression, "the house lacks classical symmetry, ignoring the Palladian style that was popular then."
Both Cameron and Burnson were eying up my rejected slice of chocolate bread.
"Everything's relatively symmetrical," Burnson said, "but it's all according to the Golden Ratio – you know, the Golden Section, the Fibonacci Series...?"
"You mean what looks like the center is actually about the two-third's point in the room rather than in the middle?"
"Right, Cameron" LauraLynn said, "and all that mathematical... well, symbolism, whatever it is."
Burnson asked if I wasn't going to eat the rest of my bread, he'd share it with Cameron, who nodded appreciatively, then took his knife and cut the slice into not quite equal halves. Meanwhile he explained how Henry Leighton – who was his five-times great-grandfather – decided to build himself a new home closer to London.
"Quackerly, near the Welsh border, was a sprawling, ungainly mansion with rooms and wings added on over the years without logic, ever since it had once been a bishop's residence in the 14th Century."
Burnson pushed the larger of the two portions of bread across to Cameron who nodded his thanks for our host's consideration. It wouldn't have been difficult to cut it precisely, though, to be fair. "Isn't that nice," I thought, sipping my tea, thinking how gentlemanly he was, "how he'd kept the smaller portion for himself."
"When Henry, the 7th Marquess, inherited in 1789, he couldn't stand the place," Burnson continued, "and wanted to be near London, wanted to 'straighten out the jumble' of Quackerly with something orderly and unified. There was an old hunting lodge and park his wife inherited in Surrey, so he decided to build his house there. This being the Age of Reason and being fascinated by science and mathematics, Henry decided to counter everybody else's Palladian aesthetics by building a palace to science where everything would reflect the Golden Mean."
He hired an Italian architect named Philippo Nacci – known as 'Fipo,' for short – famous in Florence but totally unknown in England. He designed and built a house using an entirely different set of proportions.
"There may be eight windows across the front, normally divisible symmetrically as four-plus-four, but Fipo chose to divided them into five-plus-three.
"He did the same thing with the two great round rooms, the rotundas, one larger than the other, not quite symmetrical. The two wings might look like they're identical, but they're only proportionally similar.
"The spiral staircase opens not onto the center of the Great Hall," demonstrating with fluttering hands, "but just to the right, under the ceiling's beautiful dome – all trompe-l'oile, incidentally – reflecting the floor's great medallion. Everything makes it feel it ought to be the center of the room but it isn't – it's all off-center, proportionally speaking."
Many rooms, he explained, were designed around mathematical themes – "there's the Cube Room, a perfect cube based on the Golden Ratio. And one of the bedrooms, the Dodecahedron Room, is full of twelve-sided figures."
"I hope you'll like it," LauraLynn said, "that's going to be your room."
"It sounds rather ominous, speaking mathematically," I quipped.
"Well, Mother really hates saying 'Dodecahedron,' so to her it's the Lilac Room. I'm not sure which is worse," Burnson added. "Mother's old great-aunt loves that room, she says, but it drives Mother wild."
"Even the tile floors reflect the whole idea of these images," LauraLynn said, "and some remind me of those Escher prints."
"Bet that's difficult to walk on," Cameron said, "after having too much champagne."
"But that's only what you can see of them, even if you're sober. Most of them are covered with oriental rugs."
"Well, admittedly," Burnson confessed, "as long as Mother has lived in that house, what drives her most wild are those floors, so she's developed this collection of magnificent rugs from all over the world. Yes, they protect the floors from foot traffic, but her real intent was to hide them – too busy for her taste."
"I can't imagine how all that went over in the 1790s," I said. "What did his friends think of the place?"
"Oh," Burnson said, "they thought Henry was mad as a bag of frogs."
"At least there's no other place in the world like it," LauraLynn smiled.
"As Mother would say, 'Thank God for that!'"
With a flourish, Burnson downed the last of his coffee, signaling the waiter.
"Yet she and Tabitha – and her aunt – live there alone for years," LauraLynn said, adding that Tabitha was Burnson's sister.
"Yes, but hardly 'alone' with all those servants, and I'm a dutiful son – I try to visit one weekend a month."
"But you grew up there," Cameron asked him, finishing off his chocolate bread.
"Oh, definitely," he said as Trevor came by to refill the coffee cups. "Father had a house here in Maida Vale, and we lived there most of the time, until Father died in 1967. My great-grandfather became ill, then, so Mother moved back to care for him. Her own father was kind of useless, there."
Burnson was four at the time, Tabitha barely one, so they spent the rest of their childhood rambling about this castle. Great-grandfather Rudyard was the 11th Marquess, wheelchair-bound or bedridden his last twelve years. His mind sharp as a tack, his body gave out fighting the arthritis: he died the day before his 90th birthday. As the heir living at the ancestral home, that meandering pile called Quackerly, Rudyard's grandson Ponsonby – Vexilla's uncle – inherited the title. But Rudyard despised his grandson, finding him weak, and gave Phlaumix to Vexilla.
Of course, after inheriting the title and Quackerly from his father who'd somehow left both fortune and house fall to ruin, the current marquess hated that Vexilla lived at Phlaumix Court and he didn't. By comparison, Cousin Charles was living alone at Quackerly after his wife left and he could barely afford the necessary staff.
Then came the unfortunate and tragic snag, after his young son Quigley's death, the pressure of being left without an heir, ending the dynastic line unbroken since the death of Owen Fordor in 1554. Ever since Owen's son-in-law became the 2nd Earl, Leightons have lived at Quackerly. It was an incontrovertible fact and Charles' dilemma.
Naturally, Vexilla and her children would be Charles' heirs, but they weren't Leightons, and neither Burnson nor Tabitha have produced heirs. Lawyers went back four generations to locate a possible heir, some third cousin.
Umberton had been falling into the long slumber of neglect for several decades after the last of the vicars had died, the place left frequently empty. Now, there were only the occasional short-term residents, some staying barely a year, others staying at the most four or five. No longer the property of the local church which no longer needed it, it became a constant burden to the bank which, like a bad penny, it kept reverting to with alarmingly frequent regularity.
The latest misguided attempt tried turning it into an aristocratic wanna-be's bed-and-breakfast get-away until arrivals, taking a good look at it, remembered there were other plans they'd forgotten – "Sorry!" – which meant they couldn't stay. Even as a special package for Hallowe'en weekend, it failed to bring in the necessary income to warrant all the renovations.
The man they tried to remember was now to be called Osmond Goodwood needed a place where he could "lay low," some kind of undisclosed location, given his situation, still allowing him complete control. When Holly stumbled upon Umberton setting up Central Command for the Prodigy Project, she thought it could be just the ticket.
"It has," she told him, "isolation and anonymity, a place almost completely forgotten, far from the maddening crowd and nosy neighbors; plus it's big enough to suit our needs, small enough to go unnoticed."
Though the National Trust had no serious interest in a place like Umberton, the wife of one of its busier bureaucrats, an old school chum of Holly's, Alice Nott, came up with an idea. Since they were going to be using Phlaumix Court, nearby, for an event, her husband Gordon could sweeten the Trust's deal. On his recommendation, the bank would allow them the temporary use of Umberton as off-site headquarters and residence for its staff on the understanding that, if it worked out, they would consider purchasing it.
Even if the company producing the Prodigy Project completely demolished the old place, it would not be at the bank's expense. Nobody in the local community would seriously mind, whether anyone would notice it. One thing kept Umberton from becoming an eyesore: no one could see it. Replace it with some monstrosity? Who would care?
The annoyance this Prodigy Pageant had turned into suddenly became an excellent opportunity, one Steele – or rather, Goodwood – saw as beneficial. While the end goal was a fine idea, getting there was the problem. Now, it became a smoke-screen with larger implications for his more clandestine operations and helped him escape the IMP's constant surveillance.
N. Ron Steele, the beleaguered CEO of SHMRG, disappeared en route to Switzerland before the International Music Police realized what happened. Somewhere over Bourgogne, Montgomery Banks pulled the plug on Steele's traceable electronic existence.
Nothing major, really, not like completely erasing him from the world's data base, but from that moment N. Ron Steele dissolved and slipped through the grid, arriving in Geneva with a whole new identity. With a well-used passport, phone and credit card active in Montreaux that weekend, the man called Osmond Goodwood departed for London.
Did anyone notice whether SHMRG's CEO actually got off the plane in Geneva and whether he'd gone through customs or not? Did nobody observe the arthritic gent who wheeled himself into the men's room? Or realize, after N. Ron Steele followed along moments later in his wheelchair, he was two inches shorter when he left?
Steele always thought having a guy on his staff – Basil Carsonoma – looking so much like him could come in handy, someday. But then came the greatest discovery of all: how small the world was.
He'd need to engage some recent London recruits – like Maurice Harty, a nasty bit of work even for a venture capitalist, who coincidentally was a cousin of LauraLynn Harty's which could also prove useful. Steele heard rumors about the man's illegitimate son, something Harty didn't know himself, a bit of information that could prove useful. He also knew there was little love lost between Harty and his cousin – or another cousin, the late, unlamented Robertson Sullivan. But rather than being someone else to eliminate, he'd serve a different purpose.
The murder of Robertson Sullivan that night during the Benninghurst Artist Colony's dinner hadn't been planned as part of Widor's operation which was only meant to be a burglary intent on canceling Sullivan's opera. It was something that occurred spontaneously, Steele claimed, something his once trusted but aging agent Garth Widor had, regrettably, added himself.
"Besides," Steele had argued, "if Widor hadn't killed him, that maniac coming in right after him – Widor's own son: ironic, huh? – would have killed him anyway: said so, himself – several witnesses heard his confession."
What a scene that had been on the stage of the Schweinwald Festspielhaus! Steele was lucky he escaped from that alive.
The IMP could never pin anything on him, even Widor had admitted that. And the case had never come to trial.
"Too bad Widor died in prison like that: couldn't've planned it better myself."
Yet here he was today, a powerful executive and a leader of industry, being hunted by police like a common criminal when he considered himself one of the most uncommon criminals of all time. What were a few murders toward your goal, climbing up to the top? More importantly, could the police discover them all?
"If I controlled the music people listened to, I can control the people." It was an easy path to world domination. Many of the world's most popular performers realized the benefits of joining SHMRG.
That was the point of these Prodigy Pageants and Reality TV talent shows: replace those old-fashioned hold-outs with younger SHMRG members. Who could stand outspoken figures like Robertson Sullivan constantly getting in the way?
And now LauraLynn Harty was getting married at Phlaumix Court this very weekend. Could it possibly get any easier than this?
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The usual disclaimer: The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, which you've no doubt figured out by now, is a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents of its story are more or less the product of the author's imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody, occasionally by personal experience. Many of the places are real (or real-ish) but not always "realistically used," like the Mandeville Hotel and the Royal Academy of Music's Duke's Hall (my apologies to both the hotel and the concert venue for having murders committed there). Other places like Phlaumix Court and Umberton are purely fictional. Any similarity between characters and real people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, but then, as Klavdia Klangfarben keeps quoting a former professor of hers, "Perception is everything." Yadda yadda yadda.
©2016 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train